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Mentally Preparing for the Holidays

Holidays can cause an uptick in mental health concerns; here’s how to shift the focus.

Whether it’s pumpkin carving and adorable ghosts and ghouls, or a turkey anchoring a mouth-watering feast, or a picture-perfect Christmas tree with gifts clustered underneath, the holidays conjure up certain knee-jerk images.

But for many children and their families, these images are too far from reality to celebrate. In fact, the holidays are marked by a rise in mental health issues for both adults and children.

“Holidays are supposed to be about coming together and families, but they can be isolating,” says Dr. Tina Gurnani, a pediatric psychiatrist with AdventHealth for Children.

Many children hear and see how classmates and friends experience holidays in a very different way from what they might be used to at home, and this can cause feelings of distress. Older children are faced with a barrage of happy holiday images on social media that may not mirror their more difficult home circumstances.

Dr. Gurani explains that many triggers can cause children’s mental health to suffer during the holidays. These can include the loss of a loved one, whether because they passed away or because they are unavailable due to situations like being incarcerated or the children being in foster care. Children of immigrant families may miss extended family members who live abroad.

Even for those whose family is all around them, conflict and family dynamics can cause strife, Dr. Gurnani says. Children with autism and other special needs might feel stress from the disruption of normal routines. And those with financial constraints find that they are unable to participate in things they see others do around them—vacations, trips, gifts and feasts.

“They feel more grief than usual,” Dr. Gurnani says. “There’s bereavement. They are withdrawn, may be shut down.”

Parents can take small steps to try and minimize holiday-related stress in their home. The key is to remember that while movies and social media may present idyllic images, the reality is that there are a myriad ways to celebrate a holiday, and each is unique to the child who participates in that tradition.

“There are many ways to celebrate a holiday. There’s no one-size-fits-all,” Dr. Gurnani says. “Ask your child what a holiday means to them and what they would like to do.”

Here are some more tips from Dr. Gurnani for easing the mental strain of the holiday season this year:

  • Set Boundaries. It’s OK to not want to be at every relative’s beck and call. If either travel or hosting is causing undue stress for you or your child, learn to say no and set boundaries with relatives who expect to come over and stay, or with grandparents who insist that Christmas always be celebrated at their house. It’s valid to explain that you want to spend the time with just your immediate household, with no one else present.
  • Deemphasize gifts; emphasize volunteering. A pile of gifts under the tree for little ones and the latest iPhone for the teens may be tough expectations to dispel. But try not to create expectations or emphasize this aspect of the holidays by talking about it too much. Instead, focus on giving rather than receiving—donating the gift of time and attention through volunteering. This is something fun and free to do together as a family, and the rewards to both emotions and character development can be long-lasting.
  • Practice self-care. Just doing this can be a celebration in itself. Take your children for a walk out in nature. Read a book. Paint your (or each other’s) nails. Let one parent have an adventure with just one child and have the family regroup later and share what they did. Try a certain recipe and start a new tradition.
  • Take a break from social media. Even though people may post their happy family images on social media in a well-meaning way, it can be devastating to see something that you cannot have, such a close relationship with a parent. Take long and short breaks from social media as needed. If you do post, be mindful and post the imperfect moments, too.
  • Seek therapy. Dr. Gurnani says that therapy is not just for special problems or different functioning. “It’s for everyone, and everyone can benefit from it.” In fact, going to therapy can be a significant and long-term investment in self-care.
  • Model healthy behavior. Kids constantly watch and absorb you, Dr. Gurnani says. “Your example makes a huge difference. If they see you’re doing your self-care, you’re apologizing after yelling, you’re willing to get help … then kids feel safe opening up to you. I think that setting that example is really huge.”

To learn more about mental health tips and resources from AdventHealth for Children’s team of experts, visit BeAMindleader.com.

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Anu Varma Panchal
Associate Editor Anu Varma Panchal has a master’s degrees in journalism and more than 15 years of experience writing and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Iowa and Florida. She has lived in Florida for more than 10 years, and enjoys raising her two daughters in Tampa Bay.When Anu isn’t writing or editing for area publications, she’s busy driving her kids to all their music and dance activities. She volunteers regularly in her daughters’ schools and Parent Teacher Associations, and spent a wonderful two years immersed in local history as a volunteer in the Tampa Bay History Museum’s Collections department. Although her idea of the ultimate good time is usually found between the pages of a book, Anu also enjoys yoga, her book club, travel, theater and area food and music festivals.