Helping Students Cope with Holiday Stress

By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You’re Scared & Worried: A Guide for Kids

Helping Students Cope with Holiday StressThe holidays can be a joyful time for many of us. Kids look forward to gift giving, having time off from school, and perhaps seeing relatives who live far away. But as we all know, the holidays are also a stressful time. So much to do and so little time to get it done! Schedules may be disrupted, which can be tough since most kids do better when sticking to a schedule or routine for meals and bedtimes. And when parents and other caregivers are stressed, kids feel it too.

Stress around the holidays can also affect the behavior and performance of students at school. By being sensitive to these issues and checking in with students around the holidays, school counselors can play an important role in helping kids navigate holiday stress successfully.

Sources of Holiday Stress
Changes in routine can be stressful to many of us. Kids may stay up later during the holidays, which can make them more irritable if they are not getting enough sleep.

Watching food intake is another challenge. High-calorie foods are everywhere, which can be hard for kids who need to watch what they eat. Some kids also may misbehave more when they eat too many sugary treats.

As we know in working with kids, not all families function well. Relatives who do not get along are often expected to get together during the holidays and avoid getting into arguments. And in today’s politically charged environment, many of us may be nervous about conversations that might arise during these family gatherings. Kids may not know how to react if the adults around them aren’t getting along or aren’t even speaking to each other.

For kids whose parents aren’t together, the holidays can be especially difficult emotionally. Court orders often dictate which parent gets the kids for the holidays. This can mean traveling great distances for some. While most kids look forward to their time with the absent parent, others may dread it if the relationship isn’t close. It can be tough leaving the rest of the family behind as well. Some kids may be disappointed if they are not able to spend as much time with their absent parent as they would like, particularly if that parent is unable to take time off.

If students have recently lost a family member, the holidays may be their first without their loved one. Families handle death and grief in different ways; not all are open to talking about it. Feeling sad about the absence of a family member can definitely interfere with enjoying of the holidays.

Giving gifts presents its own challenges. Kids may want to get gifts for family and friends but not have money to buy them. Or they may feel bad if they receive gifts from friends and are not able to reciprocate for whatever reason. Some kids stress about whether or not the gifts they give will be liked, while others may be prone to disappointment if they don’t get what they want.

Mental Health Issues Can Add to Holiday Stress
Kids with mental health issues often have a harder time coping with the holidays. Anxious kids may worry about how things will go, particularly if they have to be around people they don’t know well. Depressed kids may get their hopes up that the holidays will be happy, only to be disappointed when things don’t go as planned. Or they may be more irritable (a common depression symptom in kids), which can elicit negative reactions from others, including loved ones. Kids with ADHD often get overly excited and may act without thinking (for example, opening gifts that don’t belong to them or eating cookies that are baked for special events), which creates stress for other family members. Kids on the autism spectrum may be overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the holidays and the changes from their usual routines.

Addiction problems in family members can be heightened during the holidays. Use of alcohol or other drugs may be more prevalent over the holidays, particularly during parties. Kids who have witnessed conflict or violence at home that involved parents under the influence may become quite anxious, not knowing what might happen or who might get hurt.

Cultural Issues
As our country becomes more multicultural, kids are learning more than ever that not all people celebrate the same holidays. This can be awkward. Asking a friend what he or she wants for Christmas, only to find out that the friend is of a different faith and doesn’t celebrate Christmas, can lead to hurt feelings. Kids whose families do not celebrate Christmas may feel left out, even though their faith may be strong.

Saying “Happy Holidays” covers all bases with regard to celebrating difficult holidays, though people of some faiths may feel their beliefs and traditions are not being properly recognized. This can be a great educational opportunity to teach kids about how people of different faiths celebrate the holidays.

Helping Kids Cope with Holiday Stress
One of the best things you can do as a counselor is simply to listen and validate students’ feelings about the holidays. Don’t rush to offer advice or reassurance, as kids don’t always see that as helpful; they already get enough of that from parents. When you meet with students, be sure to ask how they celebrate the holidays and how they feel about them. If you know students’ parents are divorced, ask how the holidays work in their families and what they think and feel about the arrangements. A good starting question is, “What do you think you could do to make the holidays go better for you?” If needed, you can help students come up with strategies for making the holidays easier to handle, such as taking a break or asking for help when they feel overwhelmed.

Encouraging kids to help out over the holidays is a great way to help them be more responsible, reduce the stress of the holidays on their parents, and perhaps even provide some bonding time. Making cookies together can be fun and tasty!

Reminding kids to do their best to stick to their regular bedtimes, limit unhealthy treats, and get plenty of exercise can help them keep their stress under control during the holidays.

For kids who may feeling lonely during the holidays, encourage them to make sure they have contact information for their friends at school. This way they can talk or text over the holidays or even get together.

Dr. James J. CristAuthor James Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at

Free Spirit books by James Crist:

The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends WhatToDoWhenYou'reScaredAndWorried What to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue Mad

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