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Managing Family Stress During Children’s Holiday Breaks

For many, the holidays mean time off. For adults, that may mean a day or two off, or maybe an early dismissal on Christmas Eve. For children, however, it almost always means a number of days (if not weeks) off of school. This break, while necessary for children, can be stressful for families as they try to maintain their routine, balance their time, and coordinate schedules.

“Some parents require that their children spend a significant amount of their vacation working on academic tasks,” says Hollie Sobel, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute. “However, time off from school around the holidays gives children the opportunity to take a break from the stresses that can be related to the demands of school.”

Sobel points out that while kids need structure to their days, and often have homework to complete over breaks, it’s important to not overdo it or be too rigid. “Instead, school breaks provide parents with the opportunity to teach time management and organizational skills to their children. It’s important to have a balance of work and play time.”

There are also social issues that arise for children and adolescents on their holiday breaks. “During breaks, children lose access to the social contact that is inherent in the school setting. Without this, children with poorly developed social skills or social anxiety can experience feelings of isolation during vacation,” says Sobel. “For the socially active child, time off of school can lead to stress if he or she does not attend every possible social activity. This child may fear that they will lose their social status if they are not present at an event.” In both of these cases, Sobel says balance is the key, and that parents have the opportunity to instill time management lessons.

Dr. Sobel offers the following tips for managing the scheduling, the stress, and creating balance while the kids are home from school over holiday break:

Balance Structure and Freedom: Maintain a structure that includes a bedtime/curfew and a wake-time, but don’t be too rigid. Studies show that keeping your bed and waking times within one to two hours of your daily routine during breaks shouldn't interfere with your regular schedule.

Plan Ahead: Parents’ schedules are important, and often not as flexible. Remember to plan play dates ahead of time, work with other parents and/or family members to plan outings, and coordinate vacation time with spouses or other caretakers. Planning ahead can make the holiday break run more smoothly and reduce stress.

Recognize Teachable Moments: Take the time off as an opportunity to teach your kids time management, organizational, and independence skills. For example, parents with young children can create stations in their homes where their kids can draw for a portion of their time, play with blocks for another portion, and so on, teaching them to move from one activity to another without requiring continuous monitoring by a parent.

Balance Family and Friends: Encourage less social children to reach out to peers and get out of the house. Look for activities that might suit them, or help them send texts or call friends to initiate plans. For overly social children, try to ease the anxiety that can come with trying to fill every moment with a social activity by encouraging moderation and balance.

Develop Traditions and Rituals: Having traditions and rituals help build family cohesion. Research shows that high levels of family cohesion and support are related to good coping skills. Use the holiday break to build meaningful, memorable moments with your kids.

— Source: Family Institute at Northwestern University