Holiday hand-wringing: Parents and kids deal with stress

DOVER — The holidays are a time for merrymaking, celebrating and indulging the spirit of giving — but it can also be stressful.

With loose ends to tie up at work before the holiday, heaps of last-minute shopping to do and a house to prepare for the oncoming rush of guests, one can go from jolly to anxious in a hurry.

Parents are the default sufferers of these holiday stressors but, according to Bayhealth pediatrician Dr. Mamoon Mahmoud, children can easily pick them up secondhand.

“Most of the anxiety children experience and will display is a response to their parents’ anxiety,” said Dr. Mahmoud. “Oftentimes, the children will mirror their parents’ reactions and behaviors.”

For parent and child alike, some anxiety and stress during the holidays is a completely normal, even healthy, response to the flurry of activity that takes place, Dr. Mahmoud noted.

Pediatrician Dr. Mamoon Mahmoud at ABC Pediatrics in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

It’s when stress levels start to interfere with daily activities or when they linger past the holidays that the need for concern arises.

“Our bodies, both adults and children, are built to handle stress,” he said. “Children will respond to stress like adults do. As long as it does not interfere with daily activities, it is OK and normal.”

Signs that a child isn’t coping well include generally unusual behavior, poor social interactions with family and friends, changes in school performance and an increase in complaints, he added. If symptoms are especially severe, Dr. Mahmoud recommends seeking professional help.

Although not many cases make it all the way to his office, he thinks that the number of children affected is on the rise.

“Not many cases come to the pediatrician,” he said. “I would say the prevalence is increasing, though — possibly because we are seeing an increase in single-parent families, financial strains and working hours.”

Since the distinction between a healthy stress level and an unhealthy one can be tricky to draw, it may not be practical to rush a child off to a counselor or doctor at the slightest hint of undue stress.

For this reason, Dr. Mahmoud recommends that parents first do everything in their power to properly manage their own stress so it can be prevented from transferring to their children.

“It’s important for parents to address and manage their stress and anxiety,” he said. “It helps to ensure that kids don’t see their parents anxious all the time during the holidays.”

Whenever a parent is bogged down, Dr. Mahmoud recommends reaching out to others, such as family members, to see if they can take the children briefly to an activity that they may be attending or just to watch them for a few hours.

“If parents don’t have family members or others available to help them and it’s not possible to establish a support network, they may want to consider going to a counselor themselves to get tips on how to manage their own stress as well as to help their children cope with it,”  Dr.  Mahmoud said.

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