It is generally acknowledged that the holiday season can be difficult for adults. This time of year, headlines at the newsstands tout all sorts of ways to “bust stress.” Ironically, one of the suggestions is often to look at the holiday through “the eyes of a child.” But holidays can be very stressful for children, too.
Consider the child who is anxious about whether or when he will see an estranged parent. Consider the child whose parent has an addiction. Consider the shy child who would really prefer to stay at home with only his immediate family. Consider the child who likes his routine. Consider the child with autism, sensory integration, or other neurological challenges. The hullabaloo and the expectations of the season only accentuate the very real stresses that exist for these children.
My favorite parenting author, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, writes in Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles,
"Stress sneaks up on us, and as a result we often don't even realize it's taking its toll. Kids never say, ‘Gee, Mom or Dad, I'm really hurting.’ Instead they throw tantrums, hit their siblings or the neighbor kids, forget their homework, start having toileting accidents... complain of headaches and stomachaches and refuse to sleep in their own bed or go upstairs alone."
"And to make matters worse, 90% of their stress is tied to our own."
Children sense our tension. We compound it with disruptions in routines, sleep deprivation, and all sorts of poor eating adventures. And, though we certainly don’t set out to, we put pressure on them, too. They know they are supposed to be happy and they are troubled when the party that is supposed to be fun is really very trying. They know they are supposed to behave especially well in front of Great Aunt Hilda and instead they have a total meltdown.
Kurcinka writes, "Holidays and traveling are supposed to be fun, which is why the stress they create can sneak up on you. You want to ignore it. You're supposed to be having fun, but the disruption of routines, guests and new foods can raise stress levels quickly and leave you in full view of all of the relatives or the public at large dealing with a kid flooded with cortisol."
Is there a child in your family who is especially sensitive to his environment, who is more perceptive, needs more structure, feels more intensely? That’s the child who needs your care even more this time of year. Is there a child in your neighborhood who is missing a divorced parent right now? Who is wondering if the adult in his life can stay sober through December? He’s dreading Christmas. What can you do to help the littlest of God’s children to really experience the joy of the season?
Kurcinka suggests that during times of stress we need to:
1. Nurture more and to recognize the child’s need to be nurtured. For a child of your own, this might mean being especially attuned to what is important for his own calm. Does he absolutely need ten hours of sleep at night? Make no exceptions; guarantee sleep. And rub his back at the end of the day, ensuring he will drift off peacefully. Is the huge family gathering and the peppering of questions more than his shy, sweet mind can manage? Limit yourself to smaller gatherings, rehearse responses, and rescue him when he’s cornered by well-meaning relatives and blushing a deep crimson that puts Santa’s suit to shame. Be there. Hold him. If he’s an infant or a toddler, hold him almost all the time. Rock and sing. Rock and read. If he’s older, sit and cuddle in the quiet with a good Christmas story.
Limit television. It’s far too easy to plug a child in so we can go get “something productive” accomplished. This works against us. The child is now wired and he’s not feeling nurtured. We’ve pushed him away and we’ve fueled his stress with a medium that usually does little or no good for a needy child. Let some of your own expectations of appearances go in order to be very available to your child.
Kurcinka writes: "Stress disrupts our basic sense of security, and your child needs you to help her feel secure, just like you did when she was a baby. And she needs you to do it proactively… Proactively means recognizing the stress behaviors and the situations that cause stress for your family and consciously making the decision to slow things down and nurture more...Little things such as asking your child to help, or offering to carry him before he asks you to. It's essential that you offer support before your child asks for it because by doing so you allow him to make the decision:"Yes, I need support right now," or "No, I can do this on my own." He feels empowered and secure.
As you work with your child take the time to savor his presence. Revel in the memories of your child's infancy... Absorb the joy he finds in being with you. These small, thoughtful actions and words will communicate loudly and clearly to your child, "I am here. I am available. You can trust that I will not abandon you in your distress."
There are children whose parents cannot nurture. They are not physically present or they are emotionally unable. Look for those children in your life. Offer to bake with them, include them in a family meal, share a good book, be a safe haven. The child will absorb the nurturing environment in your house. He will feel safe. And to some, degree, he will take the safe feeling with him. Make a particular effort to include those children when you are doing something faith-based. Something as simple as watching your family light an advent wreath can inspire in the child a lifetime desire to live the liturgical year. There is no greater gift you can give than to nurture a child whose own parents cannot.
2. Create stability and predictability where you can.
You know the rituals of every day life that are important to your children. Make sure they don’t get pushed aside for a whole season of special occasions. A story every night at bedtime becomes even more important when it is the trigger for a good night’s sleep after an over-extended day. Post a calendar and talk about the plans for Advent and Christmas. Count down days to events and be certain that the child knows exactly what is coming and when. Remember, they don’t hold the iCal app; they are not masters of their own time. And they are completely at your mercy to know what comes next and how to cope.
3. Create rituals that connect you.
This is a beautiful season of rituals. As Catholics, our holy mother, the Church, has blessed us with a treasure chest of rituals and traditional celebrations of feasts. Don’t do them all. Instead, choose wisely. Do only those things which will bring you closer to each other and closer to God. Your goal is to connect to your child and to share the wonder of the Christ Child. Keep that goal at the forefront. Take the Blessed Mother as your role model. Make it a season of nurturing and gentle kindness and let the children come to you for safe haven and holy passage.