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Take the Stress Out of Santa Season

Children can get just as frazzled as their parents during the holidays, leading to insomnia, tummy aches, and temper tantrums. Here, eight easy, expert-recommended ways to ensure a happy, healthy holiday for the entire family.

WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Nicola Nieburg
Redbook Magazine Logo

Send Your Own Stress Packing

Kids take their emotional cues from adults, and no matter how hard we try to hide our own stress, they can pick up on the tiniest of signals — a quick sigh or tight facial expression. Plus, because younger children are inherently self-centered (a normal developmental stage), they tend to blame themselves for our angst, which only stresses them out more. Don't ignore your own mental health, advises Carol Kauffman, Ph.D., an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School. "Check in with yourself to make sure your expectations for the holidays aren't too high." For instance, rather than running yourself ragged trying to find the perfect gift for a girlfriend, settle on a gift card at a store you know she'll love, and remind yourself that she'd never want you to put yourself through the wringer. And if you're feeling that overwhelming urge to stomp on the tangled Christmas lights and cancel the holidays altogether, just stop, and treat your child to a back or foot rub. Massage stimulates pressure receptors under the skin in both of you, which slows heart rate and lowers production of the stress hormone cortisol, according to studies at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Dole Out Holiday To-Do's

"A big source of kids' holiday anxiety comes from feeling like they're lost in the shuffle," notes Jana N. Martin, Ph.D., a child and family psychologist based in Long Beach, CA. But giving each of your children a few special season-centric roles fills them with a calming sense of purpose and belonging. Assign tasks that suit their personalities — for instance, a crafty son may enjoy making a decoration for the front hall — then make each task an annual ritual. "Doing these traditions year after year helps kids develop a sense of mastery, which is in itself comforting," says Martin.

Don't Let Hunger Happen

The holiday ham may be scheduled to hit the table at 7 p.m., but if your child's normal mealtime is 6 p.m., feed him then. "Giving your kids meals and snacks at regular intervals keeps blood sugar regulated and nerves on an even keel," explains Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., author of The Cortisol Connection Diet. If he's edgy and mealtime is still an hour or two away, tide him over with a dairy snack such as yogurt or a grilled cheese sandwich. "Although the exact mechanism is unclear, studies show that certain proteins in dairy products have a calming, sedative effect," says Talbott.

Keep Them Posted on Big Plans

Change is unsettling no matter your age: Would you want to trade your bed for a cot so Uncle Ira can be comfortable? Nope, and neither does your little one. So when her life is about to be disrupted, give her a heads-up, but without making too big a deal about it. That in itself can whip up worry by making her think something must be wrong, says Martin. "Instead, start by providing a truthful reason for the change that makes sense to your children," she suggests. For example, explain that Uncle Ira has a bad back and needs a soft mattress. Then point out what won't change. ("We'll put your favorite sheets on the cot, and you can still play in your room during the day.")

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