By Lynn Louise Wonders, LPC, RPT-S, CPCS
The holiday season is a time and opportunity for bonding as a family and creating very special memories with your children. It also can be a stressful time with an over-scheduled social calendar, long-lines at the stores, tree-trimming, cookie-baking and all the preparations for bringing extended family and friends together.
What you likely idealize as a time for you and your little ones to snuggle with warm cocoa by the fire under the twinkling holiday lights can too easily turn into a time of excess stress and overwhelm. Stress is anything that threatens the natural balance and order of your life and health (Selye, 1956). The American holiday season has developed over time to be a whole lot of hustle and bustle that throws us off our normal rhythms and rituals of daily life. And when you feel stressed, your children feel it too.
One study shows that parent stress contributes to behavioral challenges in young children and those behavioral challenges go on to create further stress for parents (Neece et al., 2012). It’s a stress cycle worth nipping in the bud because research shows that when young children are able to feel connected to and supported by their parents, they develop important buffering to the harmful effects of stress (Gunnar et al.).
In order for you and your child to have that essential experience of bonded connection and support, it’s important for you to have some strategies so there is less stress and more joyful connection with your children this holiday season. Here are some tips that will help your family have a more relaxed and happy holiday season:
Keep the Sleep Routine Regular. Sleep deprivation creates harmful stress for brain and body (McEwen, 2006) so ensuring you and your little ones are getting enough wink-eye during the holidays is going to be a task worth tackling. It’s very easy for young children to fall off of their regular sleep routines over the holiday season. With all the festive events, sugary treats, and the constant coming and going, children become overly stimulated and off routine. In order to avoid stress-induced meltdowns, keep to the regular schedule and observe your child’s and your own normal bedtime routine as much as possible.
Cut Back on Commitments. Practice politely declining some invitations this year. Seek to be selective when it comes time to choosing how you and your children will spend your time this holiday. If you can reduce the number of parties and holiday events this year, you’ll discover that you have more unstructured time in the family’s schedule. This free space on the calendar allows for spontaneous and relaxing family fun .
Step away from the candy, cakes and cookies. Sugar can contribute to mood swings and a host of highs and lows when over-done (Avena et al.). Those sprinkle-covered cupcakes and sugar-dusted delights do seem to correlate with cranky children and irritable adults. A little bit of a sweet treat after a healthy, well-balanced meal is perfectly fine and fun. It’s best, however, to avoid sweets between meals that can make blood sugar spike and crash causing moodiness across the board.
Forge Family Traditions. You may already have family traditions handed down from your own childhood but creating new ones with your own children can be a way to enjoy the holidays together in a way that is more relaxing and fun. Let the holidays be a time for connecting through particular activities such as cuddling on the couch and reading a holiday story before bedtime or singing holiday songs in the car. You might have a classic holiday movie you watch together snuggled under blankets or a favorite family recipe you can cook up together in the kitchen. In addition to building peaceful time into your family’s holiday schedule, your child also gains a sense of connecting, belonging and the comfort of knowing these holiday traditions can be counted on for years to come.
Observe Mindful Mealtime Togetherness. It’s all too easy during the busy holiday season to find yourself eating on the run or skipping meals. If you prioritize gathering at the dinner table as a family on a regular basis and practice mindful mealtimes, there will be meaningful connections and lasting memories made. Allow mealtime to be a time for coming together as a family amidst the holiday chaos. Set a dinner time. Bring out the fine china, light a candle, breathe together. Model for your children how to slow down and take time to savor your food and your together time.
Lynn Louise Wonders is an early childhood specialist, licensed as a professional counselor, providing parenting training, play therapy and family therapy services in private practice as well as professional continuing education training, supervision and consultation to psychotherapists who work with children and families. Lynn also is a certified and registered yoga & meditation instructor, aromatherapist and has been teaching relaxation and self care methods to adults and children since 1995. She is the Director for Wonders Counseling & Consulting and Wonders Wellness Institute. www.WondersCounseling.com and www.WondersWellness.com
Avena, N. M., Bocarsly, M. E., Rada, P., Kim, A., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). After daily bingeing on a sucrose solution, food deprivation induces anxiety and accumbens dopamine/acetylcholine imbalance. Physiology & Behavior,94(3), 309-315.
Doom, J. (2018). Stress in Infancy and Early Childhood: Effects on Development. doi:10.31234/osf.io/hsm67
Gunnar, M. R., Hostinar, C. E., Sanchez, M. M., Tottenham, N., & Sullivan, R. M. (2015). Parental buffering of fear and stress neurobiology: Reviewing parallels across rodent, monkey, and human models. Social Neuroscience,10(5), 474-478.
Mcewen, B. S. (2006). Sleep deprivation as a neurobiologic and physiologic stressor: Allostasis and allostatic load. Metabolism,55.
Neece, C. L., Green, S. A., & Baker, B. L. (2012). Parenting stress and child behavior problems: a transactional relationship across time. American journal on intellectual and developmental disabilities, 117(1), 48-66.
Selye H. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill; 1956