Words people often use to describe their childhood memories of the holidays include joyful, nostalgic, and even magical. For children with mental health diagnoses, however, the holidays can be a difficult time. Parents or other adults can provide guidance for navigating their struggles.
Knowing Your Child’s Triggers
Each child is a unique person whose mental health may suffer under different circumstances. What causes one child with mental health concerns significant distress may have zero impact on a different child, even if they have the same or similar diagnoses. It is important to take note of the issues that seem to make your child feel emotionally dysregulated, so that you can try to plan ahead during the holidays on how to reduce adverse impact on their mental health. This could include a number of accommodations:
Keep the volume down.
This could mean turning off the TV, playing some soft music, or reducing the number of people at a specific gathering.
Ensure adequate sleep.
A sleepy child is a grumpy child, and a sleepy child with mental health concerns could experience far more symptoms than a well-rested one. If a long night is unavoidable, consider making time for a nap earlier in the day.
Gathering with friends and family may mean a lot of people wanting hugs, encouraging a child to sit on their lap, or making other requests your child finds uncomfortable. It is important to allow your child to set boundaries that make them feel safe and to support them in protecting these boundaries.
Providing a quiet space.
It may be helpful for children with mental health diagnoses to have an area they can escape to if they become overwhelmed. Ideally, this would be a space as far away as possible from the commotion of the celebration, where only they are allowed to be. Having quiet activities inside like books, legos, or coloring pages may also be a good option. This space should be an area where a child with mental health concerns can relax without fear of punishment or questions about why they need to be in there.
Know when it is time to say goodbye.
While you might like to stay all day at a family gathering, your child may not be up for a marathon session of interacting with a huge group of people. Try to limit your participation to a timeframe you think your child can handle and be ready to consider shortening your visit if they are showing signs of being distressed.
Holidays Can Be the Most Unpredictable Time of the Year
A number of mental health conditions can be eased by routine. Getting up at the same time every day, going to school, attending the same schedule of classes, seeing the same people, coming home, eating dinner at the same time, and going to bed when expected all provide a sense of stability. When there are disruptions, like summer break or Christmas, the change in schedule can lead to challenging behaviors.
If your child does best with a consistent schedule, consider what portions of their days you can keep the same, even while school is not in session, and give them advanced warning of things that will be out of the norm. This gives them time to ask questions and process what will be happening.
Talk About Confusing Feelings
It can be difficult for adults to process feeling sad, frustrated, or overwhelmed by what is supposed to be a joyful time, and children often lack the life experience, vocabulary, and complex thought processes to explain that they may be having similar feelings. They may need adults to help them find the words to appropriately say what their unpleasant behaviors are demonstrating on their behalf. They may need to hear that it is okay to experience a whole range of emotions and not just pure happiness every moment.
The holidays are sometimes also difficult for people (even children) because they have experienced something awful at this time of year. This could be the loss of a loved one, abuse, homelessness, or any other difficult situation that caused the person tremendous emotional distress. The National Center for PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) recommends the following ways to move through “traumaversaries” in the years that follow the challenging event:
· Visit the grave, if the loss of a loved one is the traumatic event. Take some flowers and talk about the things you loved about the person.
· Find a way to celebrate the person who has been lost as part of the holiday. You might put an ornament on the tree to remember each of your lost loved ones.
· Donate to a charity related to the trauma. This might be The Red Cross, a local homeless shelter, or an organization to supports sexual assault survivors or veterans.
· Help other people to avoid the same trauma or recover by volunteering or sharing information to promote awareness.
If you need help determining how to best ensure your child has a holiday season that supports their mental health, contact Highland Hospital today. Our facility in West Virginia offers professional, compassionate, and individualized treatment to help your family thrive.