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Helping Your Child Handle Anxiety During the Holidays

As this chaotic year comes to a close, we are preparing to enjoy the holiday season in an unfamiliar way. COVID-19 has completely altered your child’s school life (and your work life), so this holiday break can be a time to unwind from the stress of distance learning, working from home and/or in stressful environments, and feeling isolated from our friends and loved ones. The holiday season during COVID-19 will be especially anxiety-inducing, so it’s helpful to know how to help your child through this time away from schoolwork.

Children benefit from the cognitive stimulation provided through academic learning — even if the school setting has changed. When their distance learning routine suddenly disappears in a year that already lacks structure, your child may start to grow restless. The tough part is that, due to quarantine, we don’t have the luxury of filling our days with activities and vacations. What lies ahead is weeks of unstructured time for your kids — but there are ways to structure that time so that you can actually enjoy the holidays with your family, help mitigate your child’s anxiety, and provide them with a continued sense of stability. Here, Dr. Lauren Stutman, Dr. Cathy Schaefer, and Dr. Vivian Wang, suggest how to help your family stay on track.

1. Clear the Clutter

The holiday break can be a good time to clean out the closet and make room for new things, so try motivating your kids to go through their old toys and clothes. The “one year rule” is a good rule to go by — if they haven't played with a toy or worn a shirt within the past year, chances are they're never going to. Before the kids unwrap their new presents, pick a day when everyone in the family fills a box with items that haven't been used in the past year. Then donate, donate, donate! In the spirit of the holidays, this is an excellent time to teach kids about thinking of others and giving back. A toy that no longer gets played with might bring a huge smile to a child in need.

2. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

According to Children's Hospital of Orange County, children ages 3–5 generally need between 10–13 hours of sleep and children ages 6–13 need between 9–11 hours of sleep. Anxious children usually need even more. During the holiday break, we suggest aiming for that amount of hours with some flexibility. It’s not the end of the world if your 5-year-old gets nine hours instead of their usual ten. However, we have found that it is more important to set a consistent bedtime and wake time schedule. Waking up and going to bed at the same time each day will not only create good structure for holiday downtime, it will also make the transition back to school easier. (Additionally, once your kiddo is awake, motivate them to change out of their pajamas! Staying in pajamas can continue the mindset of a lazy day.)

3. Set Reasonable Screen Time

Screen time versus no screen time has become a popular parenting debate topic, but in a world now dominated by distance learning and Zoom, it’s important to give your kids a break. With all the fun digital stuff outside of distance learning like video games, social media, Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu, it’s hard for kids not to be intrigued by endless amounts of content during their holiday break. So how do you set a limit on screen time — especially when nearly every adult is plugged into a device or two themselves? Try limiting screen time to activities that the entire family can enjoy (i.e., watching a movie or the latest trending videos on YouTube). Not only does this score you some brownie points with your kids, it is also an opportunity for some family bonding. 4. Set a Schedule for the Day

Give your child’s schedule some structure during their holiday break. Some schools have given out packets of assignments to complete over the next few weeks, so set “academic time” when your kid can work on homework. That way, it won’t spill into their resting and relaxation.

Be sure to put aside some time for leisure activities that your kiddo can do safely at home. Your child has not gotten to participate in their usual extracurricular playtime during distance learning, so now is the time to bring it back! Research shows that playtime actually leads to improvements in concentration and academic achievement. It also builds creativity and problem solving skills. Take a break from the screen and dust off some board games!

You should also schedule time for physical activities that can be done at home. If you have a particularly active child, you might want to build this into your schedule twice a day. Take advantage of going on neighborhood walks if your family can do so while safely distancing from any neighbors.

Then write or print this schedule and display it where everyone can see it. That way, your child knows what to expect for the day. Routine gives children a feeling of stability during what is a very unstable time.

You’ll also want to fit alone time into your child’s schedule — more on that in the next section!

5. Allow Alone Time

The holidays may usually be a time for family trips and get-togethers, but the COVID-19 pandemic has us all staying safe at home. While family time without the pressure of this hectic school year is important, it is also important to let your kids have some time by themselves while they’re isolated in one place. Alone time is an opportunity to foster independence and give kids a sense of control, and parents need a break, too! Remember that your self-care is equally as important as your children’s.

Rather than dictating and planning out your child’s schedule, your kiddo can use their holiday break time to explore their interests or just wind down (both mentally and physically) from the stress of distance learning. If your kids are not quite ready to do this by themselves, you can set up activity stations around the house. These don’t have to take a lot of time and energy to prep! The point is not to have an elaborate set-up, but rather to present some available options for your child to enjoy (i.e., coloring/sticker books, costumes and other pretend-play games, arts and crafts, etc.).

6. Make New Family Traditions During COVID

The holidays are a great time to start some family traditions, even if you’re staying at home. A tradition doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. In fact, a simple sensory experience can also have great significance. For example, the smell of certain food, a song your family likes to sing together, or a matching set of family pajamas can also signify the special season. A tradition can also include finding a new activity, so try picking up a new hobby you can do safely at home!

7. Plan Some Free Time Before Your Child Starts Distance Learning Again

Starting schoolwork back up after a holiday break is never easy — and it will be especially difficult this year. It’s understandable for you and your child to experience sadness or some form of post-holiday blues when the break ends. Children and adults both need a transitional period to recalibrate before returning to the “real world.” Make sure to give your family even more time to relax during the one or two full days before the first day of school. Kids can use that time to settle down from holiday excitement, and you can use this time to process upcoming school and work responsibilities yourself.

8. Check in With Your Kiddo

As this unprecedented year draws to a close, it’s important to find out how your child feels about the coming year — as unpredictable as it may seem. Ask them how they feel about starting school again. What makes your child excited? What makes them nervous? What emotions do they feel in general? The new year always symbolizes a chance to “reset,” even if we’re not totally sure what that’s going to look like in 2021. You can ask your child to creatively express these emotions and ideas through arts and crafts, letter writing, photography, and more. This conversation is also a great time for parents to introduce new, appropriate responsibilities and privileges in the year ahead (i.e., “When you start school in January, you can make your own lunch each day!”). This is an opportunity to help your child find something to look forward to and let them know that you’re supporting them during an anxious time.

We know these are incredibly tough times, and we hope these tips will help make the time we’ll be spending at home around the holidays more relaxing and rejuvenating as we head into the new year. Let us know what worked for you and your family!

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