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Help for Children Struggling with the Holiday Season

by ​Dr. Pam Beharry

What is your image of the festive holiday season? To many it is a time of abundance, hope, spirituality and family togetherness. We shop for others, decorate, bake, share meals and have fun while the music reminds us of the “most wonderful time of the year”. Some children anticipate meeting Santa while others speculate over his existence. Some travel great distances for joyous reunions with family while others stay put and welcome guests. Sadly, not everyone’s holiday season experience is as positive.

There is an important proportion of our population – children, teens and adults – who are affected directly or indirectly by a mental health disorder. Imagine a young child trying to understand why his parent is hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Or a teenager who has experienced a similar trauma and pretends all is well because she does not feel safe enough in her world to reach out to others who may help. Think about a youth so crippled by anxiety, sadness and lack of self-worth that he feels isolated and alone. For some families, the holiday celebrations give rise to increased alcohol consumption and intensified family conflict, and others are affected by a profound sense of loss caused by separation, divorce, serious illness or death.

While these experiences happen all year round, feelings of loss and despair seem intensified during the holidays when expectations for joy and happiness are everywhere. An estimated 5% of our children and youth may be feeling heightened distress, loneliness and sadness right now.

We can help children and youth who are affected by an impairing mental health disorder or whose life circumstances have been so fraught with upheaval and loss that they feel no joy during the holidays. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Find out what is important. Your child may want to engage in seasonal crafts, activities and visits, or simply want to avoid them. If the latter is the case, as much as possible try to accommodate this desire with alternative activities rather than pressuring him/her to participate. And, look for a balance between involvement and separateness.
  • Spend time in conversation - following your child's lead, figure out what s/he would like to talk about. When chatting, listen without judgement to what the child is saying and accept the feelings they express. Rather than trying to logically dispute an opinion or feeling you may not agree with, accept that the child is expressing his or her reality.
  • Give the gift of time. Walk, skate, toboggan, play games, create something new, play with new toys or just hang out together. The time together is more important than the activity.
  • Maintain some routine. As much as reasonable, try to keep regular bed and meal times. Let the child know how the day or week will look and about likely schedule changes. Make provisions for downtime if you think it will be needed. Limit the number of sweets available, and help the child stick to a (reasonably) healthy diet.
  • Plan for soothing activities in case your child’s emotions start to escalate such as having their favourite music, movies or video games at the ready. Try slow deep breaths, curling up under a blanket, having a snack or going for a walk – whatever you know from experience can help.
  • Encourage your child to help others by becoming involved together in volunteer community activities such as helping at the local food bank.

Above all, try to find peace in the season and value all that makes your child special.

If your child is in crisis this holiday season, there are resources you can access:

  • If your child is in immediate danger of hurting him/herself, you or others call 911.
  • If you need crisis support call Front Door at 519-749-2932 (Monday – Friday 8:30 am - 4:30 pm, except December 25, 26 and January 1)
  • If you need crisis support outside business hours, call:
      • Here 24/7 at 1-844-437-3247
      • Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868