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Helping Your Kids Manage Holiday Stress

Dr. Shannon Bennett discusses how families can manage stress during the holidays. She reviews the common triggers during stressful periods and how parents can help their kids practice mindfulness. She also highlights how guardians can help children manage expectations, maintain healthy routines, and stay present and in gratitude throughout the winter holiday season.

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Helping Your Kids Manage Holiday Stress
Featured Speaker:
Shannon Bennett, PhD
Shannon Bennett, Ph.D. is licensed clinical psychologist with expertise in cognitive behavioral interventions for children, adolescents, young adults, parents, and families suffering from Anxiety Disorders, Tic Disorders, OCD and other related conditions. Her clinical practice includes individual therapy, group therapy, parent/child work, and parent training for youth, young adults, and their families using state of the art, research-supported psychotherapy interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Learn more about Dr. Bennett

Melanie Cole (Host): Between entertaining guests and traveling and hosting parties and keeping our kids engaged while they're on holiday break, it can be difficult for parents to help them deal with the holiday stress that our kids have. And it's something that we can kind of let slip through the cracks. It's easy to forget that these are days to savor and enjoy with our children.

There's no handbook for your child's health, but we do have a podcast featuring world-class clinical and research physicians, covering everything from your child's allergies to zinc levels. This is Kids Health Cast by Weill Cornell Medicine. I'm Melanie Cole. And joining me today is Dr. Shannon Bennett. She's an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, and she's the director of the New York Presbyterian Hospital Youth Anxiety Center for Weill Cornell Medicine.

Dr. Bennett, it's a pleasure to have you join us again. So, we're talking about helping our kids manage their holiday stress. So before we get into that, I think we need to start with how can we help our kids if we can't help ourselves? Because yes, this is Kids Health Cast. But as parents and certainly mothers, we have to put our own masks on before we put the masks of our loved ones on. And at the holiday time, boy, it can just be a bit of an uproar. So, how can we take care of ourselves, so that we can then start tackling taking care of those we love?

Dr Shannon Bennett: Thank you so much for having me, and I think that is the best place to start because my first tip really is that we need to take care of ourselves and our own stress during a stressful time. Yes, our kids will have their own stressors and changes in routines and excitement and disappointments. But the stress that parents experience during the holidays is hard to contain and can seep over and create some additional stress and family conflict. So, it's important for us to be mindful of our schedule, how much we're trying to pack in, and be realistic about what actually fits; to make time for downtime and for self-care, both for ourselves as well as for our kids, and to really focus on enjoying each other, enjoying the people that we're choosing to spend time with, and making conscious choices about who that is and how much time we're spending; and practicing gratitude and just trying to remain in the moment as much as is possible. All of these things are really hard.

Melanie Cole (Host): All of these things are very hard, and I remember when my kids were little. When we finally made the decision to stop driving around from house to house, going from one in-law to the other, to all these different houses. It was too much stress on the little kids. It was way too much stress on us. So you're right, you have to make that time for downtime. You have to make those important decisions. Now, when I was a little kid and six kids in my family, wow, the holidays were nuts, but do you think that kids are more stressed around the holiday than we were as kids? Is there more of a one upsmanship? "I want the PS5 this year," "I really want a new phone. Mine's all cracked." Do you think they have more stress about these things than we had as little kids when we really just wanted, you know, the latest board game?

Dr Shannon Bennett: Well, I think one thing that we can all acknowledge is different and causes stress for all of us, is social media and the comparison that can come from seeing what other people are doing, seeing what other toys or gadgets other people are getting and comparison can ruin the joy in any situation. We can be feeling really good about what our plans are and what gifts we've received until we start comparing those to the same from somebody else. So, that's one area of difference that is important to pay attention to. And perhaps using the holidays as a time to try to limit some screens and, again, practicing gratitude and acceptance of what we have, instead of focusing on the things that we don't.

Melanie Cole (Host): Well, okay. Then along those lines, social media, as you say, can be that worst comparison situation, really. And one of the things that stresses us parents out is the budget of the holidays. I know that we all have a budget. And we sit there and think, "Okay, what is it my kids need?" They need socks, they need pants, they need whatever. And what is it they want? "Well, I certainly can't afford that, and that PS5 is $800." Do we talk to our kids about this budget situation, Dr. Bennett?" Depending on their age, do we say, "Honey, you know, that's not going to happen this year"? Do we do any of that?

Dr Shannon Bennett: I think so. It has to be developmentally appropriate and depending on the child's age and what traditions you celebrate with your kids and how much is meant to be a secret, versus being realistic and managing kids' expectations, no matter their age. Expectation management is key. And having these conversations early about a family budget and, regardless, family values and what the holidays mean to us and our family, so that kids can know what to expect. And budgeting is a good life skill to learn at any age.

Melanie Cole (Host): Well, it is. And I think as you say, age-appropriate. I mean, I have a 22-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter, and they're going to hear straightforward what they're not getting this year for the holidays. Because I don't want any unrealistic expectations and they have to understand how that works.

Now, for many parents, the kids are home on holidays, whether it's home from college or they've got winter breaks. So, another thing that they notice is kids are stressing out because there's social drama or not going out or weather's an issue, COVID's obviously still been a bit of an issue. Keeping kids engaged, keeping them exercising, making sure there are bedtime routines, that they're eating healthy, not letting all of that go by the wayside for the four weeks that they're off of school.

Dr Shannon Bennett: Yeah. This is so important, both for ourselves as parents as well as for our kids of any age to try to maintain the same healthy routines that we do during other parts of the year. Of course, there will be changes in the foods that we're eating around the holidays and bedtime changes or sleep changes on vacation, but trying to manage that. So, we're planning some meals each day that have vegetables in them for our kids, that it's not just all holiday cookies and indulgent meals; trying to keep consistent bedtimes, not letting that complete sleep-wake reversal that sometimes teenagers and older kids can get into where they're staying up really late into the night and then sleeping a lot of the day; maintaining physical activities, time outside of the home; and of course, social activities as well, but trying to keep all of this in a balance.

One strategy we use for stress, anxiety, and mood is making sure we have a balance of pleasant, fun activities, productive activities, physical activities, service, things that we're doing for other people and social, things that we're doing with other people. So when you have a week or two weeks, you can think about each of those different types. Kids can make a list or they can choose from a list what they would like from each category. And we can't schedule everything to the T, but just trying to keep this in mind as we're thinking about what the days and the weeks will look like over the holidays.

Melanie Cole (Host): And you've mentioned this a couple of times, gratitude. And I certainly find that such an important aspect of this self-care for our kids. I'd like you to speak about self-care. You just mentioned good nutrition and sleep and even exercise. But self-care can also include that aspect of gratitude and appreciation for what you do have and service as you've said. How do we teach that to our kids?

Dr Shannon Bennett: I think this is really key and is so consistent with the themes that many of us talk about around winter holidays. And gratitude, we know research supports that this helps with anxiety and depression. Remaining in the moment, practicing mindfulness. We can practice gratitude at meals. So going around the table saying one thing we were grateful for today, practice at bedtime with younger kids, what's one thing that you were grateful for today? Volunteering to serve others and to do things for other people in our communities. Even within the home, helping out with making something for a holiday tradition, serving others helps us to feel good about ourselves and also helps us to put our own lives into better perspective. That may be helpful with budgeting conversations or that comparison joy stealer that we talked about earlier. So, planning ways to practice gratitude and service I think can be a really helpful part of managing everybody's feelings around the holidays. And it can be great for family connection.

Melanie Cole (Host): In my family, we did these sort of like blessing bags. And we always go downtown to have a nice weekend downtown at the holidays and we bring these bags that we've made up that have blankets and food and gift cards and soap and all these things, and we hand them out. And it's gotten my kids to really talk to some of the people that they've met on the street. They've really seen some things that I think has changed their view and made them less selfish and I'm proud of them for that.

And before we wrap up, one of the other things that I think as we go house to house and we're having people visiting, today's mental health epidemic with our kids, we're seeing it, but there's also today's political climate, Dr. Bennett. And at some houses you've got your Uncle Facebook and your Auntie Masker, or your somebody else, and our kids see this. And if they're teens or in college, they can get very upset and very stressed out by the political climate in which we find ourselves. Do you have any advice for that with our kids? I mean, they see what's going on in the news probably more than we ever did. What can we tell them about that and maybe setting it aside for the holidays?

Dr Shannon Bennett: Well, you brought up it earlier, and I just want to go back for a moment to this idea of making conscious choices about who you're visiting, how many people, how many houses you're going to. And you know, many of us had to get creative around important holidays with our family and how we managed feeling connected to the people that are important in our lives, while also prioritizing the health and safety, psychological and physical of our immediate family, ourselves and our children, so we can be creative. If we can't see everyone in one day, we can think about how do we spread this out over multiple days or making conscious choices about how we're spending our time and who we're spending it with.

Now, sometimes when we're seeing extended family who may have different points of view, we can prepare our kids for that either by having conversations in advance with everyone involved, that we will choose certain topics to just not talk about or to coach our kids that can be a skill to practice having respectful conversations with someone who doesn't agree with you and all of your beliefs, "But these are our beliefs and I'm proud of you for the beliefs that you have. And if a member of our family is not engaging in respectful discourse with you, here's a way that we can handle that". Teaching kids to say, "I don't like the way you're talking to me right now, so I'm going to take a break from this conversation" or something simple that's, again, developmentally appropriate and that's also a life skill that can teach our kids how do we deal with people who don't see the world in the same way that we do.

Melanie Cole (Host): What a great idea. And really teaching our kids to remove themselves politely, so there's no big family fights. Yeah, you're very smart offering us great ideas. As we wrap up, I want you to reiterate helping our kids with this holiday stress that we kind of all feel, plus there's this sort of worldwide stress that we all feel, right? So helping our kids to really get in the holiday spirit, help around the house, help cooking, have fun, even though it seems like the world around us is a very stressful place. How can we keep our little bubbles to be a happy place? Gratitude, service, to show each other love, understanding, patience. Patience, we all know about that, especially at the holidays with little kids. Wrap it up for us. Self-care, all of it, Dr. Bennett.

Dr Shannon Bennett: I think the key things are taking care of ourselves and our family and actually planning for that. So, planning ahead as parents with our own schedules, what is realistic? How much can we do in the amount of time that we have? And we may need to schedule in time for the additional cooking, shopping, wrapping, as well as scheduling downtime and time to take care of ourselves, whatever that means to you, and allowing our kids to witness that and helping our kids to do the same. So, finding that balance between social time, family time, time thinking about and working on helping other people. And then, practicing gratitude and trying to stay in the moment. It is a very special time, and we want to be able to enjoy the time as much as possible, to not judge ourselves when the inevitable conflicts or stressors will come up, but to manage that as effectively as we can and try to remain in the moment and enjoy the time with our family and friends.

Melanie Cole (Host): I love that. Thank you so much. What a great sentiment. Thank you, Dr. Bennett, for joining us today.

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