The holiday season can be a time for joy and a time of over-scheduling and over-stimulation. Between disrupted routines, sugary treats and high expectations, any kid, and lots of adults, can get overwhelmed by the holiday bustle.
Paying attention to where and how children are experiencing holiday stress and a little planning can help avoid travel meltdowns, sensory overload and exhausted kids.
How kids show holiday stress
Some holiday stress is part of the season and it can help to just remember that things will return to normal in the new year. But uncontrollable crying, outbursts and irritability, or withdrawing and anxious behaviors can all be signs of holiday stress and overwhelm. Tummy aches, headaches and feeling sick can be from sugary treats and new foods, but also from stress.
Keeping an eye out for triggers and new or increased behaviors can help head them off. Triggers can be different at different ages:
- For infants and toddlers, the disruption of routines and nap time can be a major stressor, as well as new environments. Babies and toddlers are often too young to fully grasp the excitement and joy of the holidays.
- Preschoolers can get overstimulated by the excitement and celebrations and by hunger-related tantrums when the errands and events took a little longer than expected.
- School-age children are often even more scheduled during the holidays with events and activities, plus hold high expectations for constant holiday fun, which can both lead to overload and anxiety.
Avoiding holiday overload
Studies show that as early as 3 months old, children can sense their parent’s stress. It’s biological! So, it’s not your fault when it spills over, but managing your own stress is a great first step. Here are some tactics for helping kids enjoy the season with less stress:
- Stick to routines. Children are comforted by routines. Stick to them or return to them when possible: If you had a late night, get back to scheduled bedtime or meal times the next day. When traveling, bringing familiar foods and clothes can help maintain a sense of routine.
- Avoid overscheduling. You can’t say yes to everything. I’ve covered overcommitting before; you can help children decide when to say “no” to invitations and set an example on time management. [ Dr. Block on helping kids set priorities and manage their time ]
- Schedule quiet time and down time. Some quiet time goes a long way to reducing overwhelm. You might want to even schedule down time during events when your kids know they’ll be able get away for a little bit. A nice winter break ritual is “do nothing” days. Your kids might get a little restless, but boredom is great for creativity!
- Get outside. Fresh air, play and getting moving can reset and boost mood, plus run off any extra energy. Especially when you notice overwhelm or irritability starting, getting outside can shift the mood quickly.
- Make a plan for overstimulating events. The bright lights, music, new foods and new faces can be too much at any age and is especially difficult for kids who experience things like ADHD, anxiety and sensory processing disorder. Consider which events work best for your family and have a strategy in place to give them a little respite during a stimulating event. You can create a code word that kids can use when it becomes too much for them or let them know ahead of time that you will take breaks outside for a few minutes or in a quiet room.
- Focusing on being together. Create holiday rituals or moments that are about enjoying time together, laughter and fun. Activities at home or with a small group of family can be less overwhelming. You can also volunteer together to serve others during this season, helping kids develop empathy while giving back.
Also remember to keep up normal healthy lifestyles, get good sleep, limit sugary treats and get enough exercise throughout the holiday season so your family can start the new year feeling rejuvenated and ready.
More from Dr. Block and Kaiser Permanente in Seattle’s Child:
- Helping your kids navigate friendships
- RSV, COVID and flu tips for a “3-bug” winter
- Tips for calming perfectionism and school anxiety in kids