Assessing Children’s Holiday Anxiety Can Help Them Stay Jolly

By Lisa D. Ellis

For many children, the holiday season is filled with joy and excitement. But some kids may also struggle with anxiety at this time of year. According to Eric Borcherding, LMSW, a Behavioral Health Consultant with Eastchester Pediatric Medical Group and Pediatrics of Sleepy Hollow, regardless of the traditions and beliefs your patients’ families celebrate, the month of December is often so jam-packed with activities and events that some children find it overwhelming . Kids can also have trouble with the changes in their routine, especially during school vacation, he says.

The Need to Be Proactive

As a healthcare provider, you play an important role in identifying children and adolescents who are feeling the stress of the holiday. “When patients come to see you with a cold, flu, or other sickness during this busy time, consider it a valuable opportunity to check in on the child and the family,” Borcherding says.

Questions for Children and Parents

One way to do this is by asking some targeted questions to help assess their situation. Good questions for children include:

  • How is school going? How have things been over the past few weeks? “Kids can be worried about what is coming up. Older kids have tests and projects due in school, so they may feel overwhelmed,” he says. This can be especially true for college students, who may have extra pressure from finals. Talk to your older patients and offer practical suggestions to address the issues.
  • What are your plans for school vacation? For kids who rely on routine, any change can be stressful. Parents can help by creating a schedule for the time off so kids can plan ahead.
  • What are your plans for the holiday? This question isn’t just making small talk but can clue you into any changes in the family situation. Perhaps there has been a loss in the immediate or extended family or a divorce that can cause stress for the child.
  • What is one thing you want to be true this holiday season?” The answer can help children articulate their vision and communicate it to their parents.

Possible questions for parents include:

  • Have there been any changes in your child’s behavior? This could signal their child is under stress.
  • How are you taking care of yourself? Kids take many of their cues from their parents, so a lot of anxiety may stem from their parents’ stress.

How to Support Families During the Holidays

 “One of the big things I recommend to parents is to plan some unscheduled time that will allow them to participate in activities that will replenish their energy,” Borcherding says. This will not only help parents but can benefit their kids, too. “You can also suggest a parent think about how they want their holiday to look or how they want their gift-giving to look and build on that concept,” he says.

While such meaningful conversations require you to spend a little extra time during the patient exam, your efforts can go a long way toward helping your patients and their families relax and get the most out of this magical time of year. Further, when your assessment identifies children or families whose stress is deeper and is interfering with their functioning, it’s important to involve a behavioral health expert for added help and support.