The holidays can be a stressful time during a typical year. Given the pandemic and social distancing, 2020 has been anything but typical. With all of these additional factors, many families are experiencing a new kind of strain this year.

“We know that for safety reasons, the holidays will have to look quite a bit different and that’s causing a lot of emotions—it’s causing emotions in all of us,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw.

Identifying signs of stress in kids
Children who are experiencing unfamiliar emotions this time of year may find it hard to manage their feelings. Kids, especially young children, can’t always tell you when they are stressed, anxious or worried, so parents are encouraged to take note of changes in their children’s behavior, interests, and their sleeping and eating habits.

“A change of any kind from your child’s baseline behavior can be a sign of stress.”

Stress often manifests as a headache or stomachache in older children or adolescents. A toddler’s tantrums may become more frequent or intense. A potty-trained preschooler may start wetting the bed. A teen may become withdrawn, experience mood swings or stop participating in activities they enjoy.

To help ease negative emotions:

  • Stick to routines, including bedtimes and wake-up times.
  • Get regular exercise as a family to help relieve stress and boost your mood.
  • Pay attention to what your family is eating. The foods you put into your body can affect how you think and feel.
  • Take time for self-care—even if it’s just 15 minutes a day. Do something that is positive and mindful to recharge your emotional batteries.
  • Find opportunities to play and laugh with your kids—joke books are a great way to get started.
  • Get plenty of sleep. If that’s a struggle, start by giving yourself more time in the evening to wind down and prepare for bed.

“It can be helpful to take a warm shower or drink a warm cup of tea, because that helps draws the blood circulation away from your brain and toward other parts of your body,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “It can help cool off your thoughts and allow you to fall asleep easier.”

In general, when kids are stressed, they need more physical, verbal and emotional contact with the people they love. Make time to give your kids your undivided attention. Read together, play games and give extra snuggles, suggests Dr. Bradshaw. “There is data that shows focusing on the positives in a dark time can improve your brain chemistry and that can actually improve your health.”

What’s most important is to acknowledge what you and your children are feeling and to talk about it.

“It’s OK to say, ‘Gosh, I’m feeling a little bit sad that we don’t get to see Grandma and Grandpa this year, but why don’t we give them a call or why don’t we FaceTime them right now and tell them that we love them,’” says Dr. Bradshaw. “When you call out your emotions, you’re teaching your kids that it’s better to let your feelings out, process them and move forward than to keep them locked up inside.”

If your family is struggling, talk with your pediatrician. Your health care providers are available to help and connect you with resources, if needed.