The holidays can bring so much excitement and anxiety for children that it can sometimes be too much for them to handle. University of Missouri developmental psychologist Christi Bergin says there are ways to reduce some of the excitement.
“First of all, I want to say I love the holidays. I don’t want to just focus on the negatives. They create great memories for us. They draw families tighter together. But they can also be pretty disruptive,” she says.
Bergin says little ones don’t have enough self-regulation to manage all that emotion. That’s why you might see temper tantrums at birthday parties, for example. She gives some suggestions to help kids keep their emotions in check.
“Minimize the gift giving. Kids just need a couple of gifts. They don’t need to be overwhelmed by a dozen gifts. We can also make sure that they have a little bit of downtime to help them get that excitement under control. And also we have to manage the issue of disappointment – that you don’t always get everything that you want in the gift department. We can talk with kids about realistic expectations and also how you need to appreciate what you have,” she says.
The holidays often include a lot of change. There might be traveling involved and family might be in town to visit. Change can be difficult for some kids.
“Even something like moving the furniture to accommodate this pine tree in the house or something. You know, those kinds of changes cause anxiety in children. Little children don’t even like it when mom and dad sit in the wrong chairs at the dinner table. They really like their routine and having their expectations,” says Bergin. “So you can help with that anxiety a little bit by kind of giving them a pre expectation, like this is where we’re going to go, and here’s what it’s going to be like. With really small children, one of the most important things you can do is bring their security blanket or their stuffed animal or whatever their attachment object is that they find comfort from.”
She says threatening to take away your kids’ gifts can also create anxiety in children.
Dr. Bergin says a routine, which is important for the emotional well-being of children, is often disrupted during the holidays. She says the primary disruption is their sleep schedule.
“Sleep is not just an issue in around the holidays, but it gets magnified around the holidays. In general, children are getting less sleep now than they used to in previous generations. Even from 1990 to 2012, we monitored differences in sleep across about a 20 year time period, and found significant reduction in the amount of sleep that children were getting. Today, about 85% of teens are mildly sleep deprived and up to about 40% are significantly sleep deprived to the point that it’s equivalent to having a sleep disorder. So that’s a pretty big deal for almost half of our teenagers. And our younger children, we’re seeing almost the same kind of parallel drop off in the amount of sleep. So kids in general, today are not getting enough sleep,” says Bergin.
Why does that matter?
“Well sleeps really important for a lot of things. I mean, you think about how not getting enough sleep affects you. You know, the same thing is going to happen with kids, we get more irritable, we get more aggressive, we find it difficult to pay attention. We also find that with children, they do better in school, they get higher grades and higher test scores, when they get more sleep. Even toddlers learn language faster and better when they get more sleep,” she says.
In one study Bergin mentions, parents were asked to put their kids to bed 30 minutes earlier or 30 minutes later for three nights in a row.
“Just three nights, not that long a time period,” she says. “But what they found was that those kids had worse memories, poor attention, and reduced motor speed. So it affected them cognitively and physically. And just in just three days of that reduced sleep, they had the equivalent of two years of regression in development, or acceleration in development for those that got the half hour more of sleep.”
Other serious consequences include sleep deprivation actually masquerading as ADHD or emotional disorders.
“Kids tend to be more prone to depression and attention problems when they are sleep deprived. In fact, you can actually trigger mental illness with sleep deprivation,” says Bergin. “You can adapt to sleep deprivation so that you don’t feel like you are sleepy, but it still has the same effects on you.”
She says getting children to bed is not easy and she applauds parents who are making sure their kids are having a decent and regular bedtime.
Bergin is a regular guest on Missourinet’s statewide syndicated daily radio show, called Show Me Today. To hear the full segment, click below.
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