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Helping children cope with anxiety during the holidays

Anxiety
Ryan McGuire/CC0 Public Domain/Pixabay

The COVID-19 pandemic upended our lives and forever changed how we function. Things we never debated in the past — everything from hybrid work environments to masking politics — have become everyday conversations. And now in our second holiday season during a pandemic and growing mental health crisis, many of us have normalized our fears and frustrations. Children are watching adults’ arguments and isolation and pain — and they too are struggling to make sense of weird schedules and sad feelings and holiday tensions.

As the effects of the pandemic carry forward, so does the number of children with anxiety. A recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General cited that “research covering 80,000 youth globally found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.” Much ink has been spilled over the last 20+ months on the vital role that emotional wellness plays in development and overall health, and rightfully so.

Many of us are looking forward to valuable family time this holiday season — but we can also acknowledge the stress and weariness that comes with travel and family disagreements. Just as we make sure our children are prepared for winter weather with hats and gloves, we should also prepare their minds to healthily respond to hard conversations and uncertainty. Here are some ways that parents or caregivers can help children build resilience.

Admit your own anxiety

You don’t have to be outwardly fearful or expressive for your stress to affect the children around you. Children pick up on how you feel even if you don’t explicitly tell them that something is wrong. They are far more insightful than we often give them credit for being. To help avoid passing stress along to children, acknowledge to yourself what you are feeling and take note of it’s affecting your daily life.

When a parent is worrying about something out of their control or suppressing their own feelings, their child is likely feeling an extension of that stressor. It’s crucial that parents or caregivers slow down and acknowledge what they’re feeling. Managing internal anxiety is as important as being aware of how it manifests itself externally.

Our children feel deeply. It’s good to remember that they have big emotions too—and to remind ourselves and them that God can handle those big emotions. In fact, the Bible is full of emotional stories: Once Adam and Eve sinned, they felt ashamed. Sarah rejoiced when she was able to give birth to her son Isaac. David cried out in despair in the Psalms. Mary was frightened by the angel Gabriel when he first appeared. Jesus, the King of the Universe, wept for his friend and cried out when he was forsaken on the cross by His Father. We’re made in the image of God, so it’s ok — and good, even — for us and our children to experience the full range of human emotion.

Take time to acknowledge how you’re feeling. Then you’ll be better prepared to help your children do the same.

Validate their feelings

Anxiety manifests itself differently in every child, depending on age and personality. It can show up in a myriad of ways like nightmares or agitation, irritability, unusual conflict with siblings, fear of separation from parents, or refusal to go to school or other activities. And since children aren’t always straightforward with what they’re feelings — sometimes because they don’t yet understand how to express themselves — it can be difficult to determine what’s going on below the surface. When these behaviors crop up, it’s important to ask your children what they’re feeling and validate their emotions, even when they can’t put exact words to them. A good opportunity to do this is when they’re helping with errands or chores during downtime at home.

You want your questions to feel like a safe conversation — not like you’re grilling your child or like they’ve done something wrong. It’s important for children to be heard and reassured. Something that’s not always obvious to them is that it’s okay for multiple emotions to exist at once. They can have fun even on a day when they feel sad. They can be strong and brave even when they’re feeling afraid. One way to invite children to share how they’re feeling is by sandwiching conversations about their fears between stories about their strengths.

For example, name a time you noticed your child expressing courage or strength. Then, validate a vulnerable feeling or fear you think they may be experiencing and allow them time to express that feeling in their own words. Before you end the conversation, remind your child that this feeling is normal and does not change the strength you see in them. When we give validity to the feelings that children share with us, we create a space for them to grow emotionally, and we teach them how to healthily share their burdens with a safe support system.

Be a storyteller

In the Old Testament, we see many passages where God’s people set up stones to remind them of God’s care and protection during hard times. They did not want to forget how God had led them through challenges and the stories that the memorials represent don’t sidestep hard issues. Joshua instructs Israel to construct a stone memorial after God parted the Jordan river so that future generations remember both Israel’s wandering in the desert and God’s care. When David sets up his “Ebenezer,” it is to remind everyone that while Israel had sinned, God was merciful to defeat their enemies (1 Sam 7:12).

We should follow this biblical example — telling our children stories of trials and successes and how God has been with them through it all. Remind them about the time they overcame a difficult test at school or did well during a game against a tough opponent. Remind them how they prayed when they were sad and God comforted them, or how they asked God to help them and He did. This reinforces the idea that, even when life is challenging, they can thrive and see signs of God’s protection.

Parents should name hardships so that the next time an issue arises, children can meet it with confidence. For example, if your family got into a heated discussion the last time you were at a grandparent’s house for dinner, you can talk about that experience, ask what your child felt, and equip them with tools to better manage it this time around. This could look like removing themselves from the conversation if they feel uncomfortable or having a word they can use to signal to change the subject if things get heated.

During the holiday season when children are spending more time at home, we can help them grow and develop healthy habits to cope with their anxieties. Most importantly, we can show them they are not alone. Despite the flurry of tasks and extra errands, now is the perfect time to check in on your mental health and that of your children. We can acknowledge our own worries and approach our children with compassion and patience.

Dr. Philip G. Monroe is a licensed psychologist and is currently serving as Director of Trauma Healing Training at American Bible Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His areas of specialty include church leader mental and spiritual health, trauma, global mental health, and sexual addictions.

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