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Holiday anxiety affects kids, too: Tips on how parents can manage it

A child experiences anxiety. (Elva Etienne/Getty Images)
A child experiences anxiety. (Elva Etienne/Getty Images)

The most wonderful time of the year is busy and stressful for many people, including kids.

Even though we think the holidays should be joyful and relaxing, both adults and kids can experience a lot of anxiety this time of year.

Clinical psychologist Stephen Whiteside is the director of the pediatric anxiety disorders program at the Mayo Clinic and author of the forthcoming book “Anxiety Coach,” out this spring. He shares tips on how to lower holiday anxiety for kids.

How to tell if a child is feeling anxious

Behavior can clue adults into a child’s emotional state even when kids cannot verbalize their anxious feelings, Whiteside says. Reluctance to seemingly fun activities like getting together with friends or family, withdrawn silence, tears or sudden irritation in response to straightforward requests can indicate anxiety in children.

The difference between stress and anxiety disorders

Everyone gets anxious sometimes. If a situation would make most people feel anxious, like busy holiday plans or activities like a piano recital, that indicates stress, Whiteside says.

“But for some kids, they get much more nervous and worried than we would expect,” he says. “Meeting new kids makes them so anxious that they’re afraid they’ll say something wrong, so they avoid the situations and don’t talk. So it’s being more afraid than most people would expect and also being more afraid regularly enough that it gets in the way and causes problems.”

When parents should seek help for their child

When anxiety is stopping kids from doing things they want to or making everyday life distressing, parents should seek help, Whiteside says.

To get an anxious kid through a situation like a holiday, parents should allow their child to do things differently or avoid stressors.

“But if our goal is to help a child feel less anxious going forward so that anxiety is less of a problem, the most important part of treatment is something called exposure therapy,” Whiteside says, “helping kids gradually face their fears and build their confidence through learning through their own experience that what they’re afraid of didn’t happen and that they were able to handle feeling anxious and doing things that were challenging.”

Anticipate stressful situations

If parents realize that visiting an aunt and uncle’s house for the holidays will be challenging, for example, make the situation easier for the child by planning a board game or activity to break the ice, Whiteside suggests. Let kids know what to anticipate and allow for downtime.

“If you’re stressed out or nervous even though while you’re doing a fun activity, it’s really helpful to have some time just to veg out and collect yourself on your own,” he says.

Lower expectations

Holidays bring a lot of pressure for plans to go perfectly  — so remain calm if there are bumps in the road, Whiteside says.

And, as always, get fresh air, rest and eat well.

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris Bentley. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.