Ask the Expert: Anxiety in Children during the Holidays

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health challenge in children. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health’s current statistics reveal that eight percent of teens between the ages of 13-18 have an anxiety disorder with symptoms which commonly emerge around the age of six.

While triggers of anxiety differ from child to child and questions abound, the reality that the holidays can contribute to symptoms of anxiety in children is apparent.

On today’s blog, licensed psychotherapist Janet Spaulding answers questions about stress and anxiety in children and youth, and shares symptoms to look for as well as ways parents can support their child’s mental health through the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.

Why are kids stressed and anxious during the holidays?

We assume that with all the fun and excitement around the holidays that children have no worries. Parents may be surprised to know that the flurry of activities that cause them anxiety – buying presents, cooking holiday dinners, traveling long distances – may also be overwhelming for children. Though they may not be directly engaged in activities, they are taking their cues from the adults around them.

We often hear from teachers that the holidays can be a major period of stress in the classroom. One teacher I spoke with said that many times her students actually prefer the structure of school over dealing with the demands and stressors of today’s holidays. For some children, winter break can even be an unwelcome disruption in a predictable routine.

What signs and symptoms should parents look for?

Is your child easily frustrated, wanting to avoid school or other social settings, increasingly irritable, acting out in the classroom or balking at doing their homework?  These are all common indicators of anxiety in children.

Dr. Richard Gould, a pediatrician at Pediatric Medical Associates in Sacramento, views holidays as a really hard time of year for anxious, “well” kids. He estimates that about 90 percent of children presenting with stomachaches, headaches, school avoidance and frequent feelings of frustration are experiencing anxiety-related symptoms.

What should parents do if their child is experiencing symptoms?

If you are concerned, don’t be afraid to seek outside help. As with our physical health, sometimes we are doing better, and sometimes we need assistance. If your child suddenly had a rash or began wheezing, you would likely take him/her to a doctor. Mental health clinicians with training and experience in working with anxiety are your best resource. Each Mind Matters has a developed a list of resources for families, or you can search directories such as Psychology Today for clinicians specializing in children with anxiety. You want your child to get help from someone who has specific knowledge and training in treating anxiety, so before scheduling an appointment be sure to ask questions about their training and experience.

What are some tips for reducing stress and anxiety for children at this time of year?

Set expectations for the family. Find the value – the direction you want to head toward this holiday – and then plan specific steps to get there. Do you want this to be about family history?  Dedicate time to watch home videos of when they were babies or look through photo albums together.  Is it about celebrating the change of seasons?  Plan an evening around hot cocoa and building a puzzle together or go outside and enjoy the brisk air.

Organize activities into manageable, bite-size pieces. Visiting many people or attending several parties in one day can be confusing, especially for young children. Decide as a family a schedule that will allow everyone to share in the season, but not be overwhelmed. Also, try to keep the sleeping and eating routines consistent while children are out of school.

Enjoy and celebrate the present moment. Appreciate each activity for what it is and allow yourself and your child to experience it fully. Make a batch of homemade cookies together, going through each step hand-in-hand. Sing and dance along to holiday songs. Light candles and watch the flame flicker and the shadows the light casts throughout the room.

Can children get better?

Children recover from mental health challenges every day. What’s important is that you, as their parent, are not afraid to talk about it and ask for help.  Between 70-90 percent of individuals who receive mental health support report improvement in their symptoms and quality of life. However, only about 18 percent of children ever get that support. Your child deserves the opportunity to be happy and healthy all year, so don’t wait.  Speak up, reach out and get them assistance when it’s needed.

Janet Spaulding, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist trained in Acceptance, Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) for working with anxiety disorders including OCD, Panic Disorder, Specific Phobias and Social Anxiety. Ms. Spaulding is a Clinician and Lead Supervisor at Sage Psychotherapy and Treatment Program in Sacramento, CA. She works with all age populations in Sage’s Intensive Outpatient Program in both individual and group therapy settings as well as exposure response prevention sessions, leads educational experiential exercises and facilitates the weekly family support group.