By Lisa Schneller and Danielle Hummel

With the 2020 holiday season solidly upon us, there’s a lot of emotions. This year has offered so many unexpected twists and turns and you’re not alone if you’re feeling slightly overwhelmed, burnt out, or even sad about how different this season looks. Odds are, the children in our lives are feeling this too! Today, we’re sharing some of the key signs to look out for stress and sadness in your children and teenagers as well as easy, cheap, and fun ways to make this moment and holiday season joy-filled.

First, let’s talk about younger children, ages 4-10-ish. Children express stress in different ways, especially before they have the emotional language to explain their feelings to us. Some of the key markers to look out for are physical! Kids who have chronic stomach aches or unexplained illness without any other symptoms or fever are often experiencing some mental health stress. Butterflies or nausea could be anxiety and sleepiness could be depression. They also may show a shift in their interests. Perhaps they want to play Minecraft less or don’t want to call their friends over FaceTime as much. Also, they might be arguing with their siblings more or crying more easily. A key sign is to track is mood swings! You may also see them refusing to do things that they would have easily done before, like clearing the table or doing homework. Another sign of mental health struggles during the pandemic is around virtual school. If they are logging out early or having enhanced trouble engaging, this can be something to note and ask your child about.

Now what about older kids, our teens and tweens? A big thing to note is isolation. A tween/teen might spend more time in their room or stop coming down for meals. This isolation might be subtle and happen slowly over time! If you notice more separation from the family or not doing things they used to like to do, check in with them. You also might notice they are feeling especially cranky, or snappy, like a turtle. Approaching them with open-ended questions and engaging in conversation is key. Our tagline in ATOD (Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs) Prevention is, “Talk early.  Talk often.” for a reason. It’s one of your super powers as a parent! Even if your teen snaps back at you when you ask how they are, it’s important to continue to knock on their door and encourage communication. Even if they seem like they don’t want you, they do still need you!

Before we share some of our favorite activities, let’s talk about expectations. Keeping the global stress and experiences of our children in mind is important as you plan activities. Parents might plan something, expecting children to be excited about them, however when they get to the activity, the kids seem overwhelmed and the stressors or behaviors start to show up. It’s easy to feel like the activity was not a good idea, or that they are being “bad” and giving you a hard time. It’s important to reframe this! They are actually just having a hard time. That’s okay. Pause the activity, give a hug or ask a question, and see how you want to progress as a family. It’s okay to put the activity aside and do something else! As way to help and engage your whole family is through collaboration. Instead of surprising them with activities, make a list together. Include your children and have them pick out activities they want to do. Some families call this a holiday bucket list! When everyone picks an activity, kids are more likely to respect other family members’ choices knowing they will have an activity they enjoy as well. What could you put on your bucket list? Some of these activities we love are:

  • A holiday chain countdown – this can be so fun to make AND to rip apart! You can make these as a lead up to a holiday, a birthday, an outing, anything you want to build some excitement for!
  • A gingerbread house – gingerbread houses are a ton of fun to make and decorate. You can do traditional or see if there’s a unique kit that strikes your fancy!
  • Game nights – these are great for little kids all the way through late adulthood! Grab a board game or cards and get everyone involved. We love Apples to Apples (and Apples to Apples Jr.) as well as Simon!
  • Movie night – Have your kids to take turns picking a movie or family snack. A way to make it extra fun is to give everyone a $5 budget to choose their own treats!
  • Send notes – Get together and write cards to people you love and mail them out. This is a great way to stay connected to family members you might normally see but cannot celebrate with in-person this year.
  • Make cookies – Cookies are a fun activity anytime. Kids love making a mess and decorating and you can adapt your recipes/decoration goals according to their skill and age!

Remember to plan ahead and not over schedule or overburden yourself! Make a plan for the things you want to do in the coming weeks and set a general idea of when you will do each thing. This will be beneficial for you and can help your kids to be excited and know what to look forward to and expect.  Planning allows for transition time, if that’s helpful for them. Also, do your best to stay connected. We know everyone is feeling stressed and it may not sound super fun to turn on Zoom at the end of your day, but the connection is worth it. We love Zoom playdates, trivia games over video, and games you can play on FaceTime or Zoom (like Yahtzee or Houseparty!).

One of the most important things right now is taking care of yourself.   In order to get through the season and support your kids, you have to take care of you! Allow time for things you want to do. It’s easy to get super focused on your kids and forget about you, but it’s important. Taking care of yourself truly makes you a better parent. Go on a walk, drink some tea, read a book, journal, light a candle, do things to help calm your mind. Meditation is a really powerful thing we recommend to everyone! We love the Balance app, as well as Calm, Buddhify, and Insight Timer. We also are huge fans of Yoga with Adriene and yoga in general.

You are so important for your children and family. Often people think peers, social media, television, etc. are what influence young people the most but it’s actually parents. As kids get older, it’s easy to feel like you’re not as connected or important to them but you are. What you say and do they notice and pay attention to – you’re their north star. You are their constant; you provide predictability, security and assurance that things will get better. The more you check in, the more you talk, share, and listen, the better relationship you will have with them and the safer they are going to feel. This matters when things are difficult and hard and also good! Take time to play a game, ask silly questions, and build on-going rapport. This will help your children turn to you when they need you. You are their light, even when it feels hard and remember, you are the exact right parent for your child. You’re doing a great job. Happy holidays!