The holidays can be hectic for many families, even without a pandemic going on, and our ‘new normal’ means things will look a little different this winter. Stress can be caused by both positive events and difficult situations. Since children may not yet have the words to describe their emotions, it is important to watch for any changes in their behavior—in particular eating, toileting, and sleeping— that can tell you how they’re feeling. Children may want to eat more or less. They may regress in their toileting progress. Or they may want to sleep more or wake up more throughout the night. Children will bottle feelings up or take out their emotions on others, so you might notice clinginess, physical aggression, little interest in favorite activities, or withdrawing from others. These behaviors are called acting in or acting out.
So what can we as parents do about it? As our children’s first teachers, we can help them cope with their emotions.
Be a STAR
STAR stands for Stop, Take a deep breath, And Relax. To model this, show your child how to take a deep breath when feeling anxious, and practice during moments of calm. Have your child pretend to blow out the candles on a birthday cake. Hold up three fingers and have your child blow on each finger, putting them down as they “blow them out.” By practicing this deep breathing during moments of calm, your child will be more likely to remember it during times of stress.
Rather than hiding your emotions, talk openly to your child about how you feel. Acknowledging that you are sad that you can’t visit your parents for the holidays can help your child to know it’s okay to have these feelings. You can even help them recognize emotions by naming their feelings for them. For example, you could say, “I know you’re frustrated you can’t hug grandma. I’m frustrated too. But this won’t last forever.”
Talk About Changes Openly
Answer your children’s questions about the unknown as best you can. Allowing them to talk openly shows them that you care about how they are feeling. If you do know of any upcoming changes, tell your children what it will be like ahead of time so they know what to expect.
Everyone wants to feel like they have some control over their lives, including young children. Letting your child make small choices on their own helps them feel more secure. Give your child a choice between two things that you are okay with, such as red or green pajamas at bedtime or oatmal or yogurt at breakfast. Making the choice on their own will make them feel like they have control.
Create Time for Connection
The best way to alleviate stress for the whole family is to spend time together. Have fun with sensory play, like creating with playdough, splashing in water, or making a snack. Get moving by having a dance party after dinner, playing hide and seek, or taking turns hiding and finding an object. And of course, don’t forget to spend time loving each other. Snuggle up in a chair with a favorite book or build a tent with furniture and sheets to make a cozy space to spend the afternoon. However you decide to connect, the most important thing is that you are together.