Helping Children Through Winter Holiday Routine Changes
The latest 'Understanding Kids' column
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The festivities leading up to and during the winter holidays can bring about many changes and disruptions to a family’s routine. Some children take these changes in stride, while others may need extra support to manage the excitement of the season.
Children, especially under age 6, depend a great deal on routines for a sense of comfort. Of course, routines sometimes change. Learning to cope with changes is an important achievement that emerges over time. Parents can help children with this developmental task when they talk about the disruptions, including having preparatory discussions when they anticipate them, and reflective discussions when they don’t occur as anticipated.
Parents can ease anxiety around disruptions in routines by maintaining as much age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate structure as possible, while providing additional support around the parts of the routine that are different.
In addition to the anticipation of giving and receiving gifts, there are a number of disruptions to the usual routine that occur for many families this time of year.
• Schools close for a week or two, so a child’s daily routine and connection with teachers and friends are temporarily interrupted.
• Some families travel while others welcome relatives or guests. In either case, children are visiting with people they may not see very often, and may be sleeping (and going to bed later) in unfamiliar places.
• During this time of so much activity and excitement, there is the added cultural pressure for some children to maintain proper behavior if Santa is “keeping a list” and watching their behavior.
Maintaining Structure and Providing Support
Maintaining the structure of some of your child’s routines, such as bedtime stories and providing familiar comfort objects, can help when there are other disruptions. Sometimes, simply talking about what a child can expect each day is enough support to ensure that child’s success and comfort. Children benefit from adults putting words to experiences, and words that describe potential feelings are especially helpful. For example, a parent expecting visitors could say, “Today may feel a little different because we have some errands to run, and then Aunt Sue and Uncle Joe will be here. We haven’t seen them since last year, so it may feel a little strange at first.”
Changes in behavior usually indicate that a child feels different in some way. Some children may seem more excitable and have a harder time settling down. Others may seem quieter, more withdrawn or less interested in their usual pleasures. For young children, the magical thinking related to Christmas holiday traditions makes this time of year both exciting and worrisome. Some families may be able to ease a child’s anxiety by playing down the magical elements of Christmas; in particular, those that lead a child to feel watched (such as the “elf on the shelf” or “naughty and nice” lists).
When to Seek Help
Some children have difficulty with changes to their routine in general. The anticipation of birthdays, traveling or visitors may cause changes in behavior that interfere with your family’s ability to carry on smoothly. If your child has particular difficulty with changes throughout the year, help from a professional may add to your understanding of how to best support his or her development.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.