Anxious kids rely on carefully crafted routines, and too little structure or shifting routines can feel overwhelming

With public school holidays in full swing, it’s natural to think that kids might be relieved. They made it through another term…

For some kids, however, it’s the opposite. Many children actually experience an uptick in anxiety during the break. Anxious kids rely on carefully crafted routines, and too little structure or shifting routines can feel overwhelming.

There are several factors that can negatively affect anxious kids during the school holiday:

  1. New, and not necessarily improved, daily routines. Kids with anxiety thrive in familiar settings with a fair amount of structure because they like to know what to expect. The trouble with school holidays is that the routines generally change. Whether a child is enrolled in a school holiday program, or staying at home the rules and expectations change. The lack of predictability and structure can trigger worry and be overwhelming. It can also result in meltdowns.
  2. Over-scheduling. Parents may see the break as an opportunity to help their kids step outside their comfort zone by loading them up with shiny new experiences. “Many parents view the holidays as a time for children to ‘catch up’, improve or gain an edge, and enrol them in numerous classes or activities, leaving little or no time for kids to relax and rejuvenate,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day. “Piling on and filling time only adds to their stress and anxiety that, ideally, school holiday is theoretically designed to reduce.”
  3. Changes in eating habits. Holidays are often treated as a time for bending the rules and enjoying extra treats. Although a little indulgence is always fun, too much of a good thing (or straying too far from the healthy balance you work all year to promote) can affect how kids feel both physically and emotionally.
  4. Changes in sleep habits. It’s common for kids to have periods where they don’t sleep well, but patterns of poor or inconsistent sleep can negatively affect their mental health. Sleep and anxiety have a fairly complicated relationship. Research shows that sleep problems predict escalating anxiety symptoms, and that anxious kids have difficulty falling and staying asleep. “It can be so easy to let bedtimes slide in the holiday”, says Carla Naumburg, author of How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids. “But getting your kids to sleep at a reasonable hour is incredibly important.”
  5. Too much screen time. Believe me, I understand. You’re tired of hearing about the screens. You might also be tired of hearing your kids ask for just a few more minutes of screen time on a rainy (or even perfectly sunny) day. Many kids enjoy technology and use screens to connect with their friends or fill their downtime. A recent study found an association, though, between more screen use and a small increased risk of anxiety and depression. Although it might be tempting to focus on the words “small increased risk” or state that more research is needed (it is), it’s also important to note that any risk is too much when it comes to our kids’ mental health.
  6. Travel worries. Family travel can be a lot of fun and create lifetime memories, but it can also feel overwhelming. From flight anxiety and travel delays to sleeping in strange places and dealing with change, travel isn’t always easy for little worriers.

Although there’s no easy fix, parents can take steps to help prepare anxious children for the changes that occur during the school holidays:

  1. Get back to basics. Balanced nutrition (including occasional s’mores), plenty of water and exercise, a consistent sleep routine, regular periods of downtime, and unstructured play are essential for helping your anxious child thrive during the school holiday.
  2. Trust your gut. You don’t have to accept every play date invitation or force a sleepover. Take the opportunity to tune in to your child’s needs and focus on creating a relaxing school holday.
  3. Maintain the usual sleep routine. Consider white noise, relaxing music, blackout shades, or even a weighted blanket to help ease your child into sleep. And although a couple of late nights won’t pose too much of a problem, don’t make a habit of it. Preserving the sleep routine that your child relies on during the school year can prevent him or her from losing sleep or getting caught in a pattern of constant adjustments.
  4. Set healthy boundaries. Screens are alluring, and they certainly feel like a lifesaver during long flights or car rides, but the key to teaching moderation is to practice it. “Any sort of screen time can be anxiety-producing,” Naumburg says, “but especially time spent on social media, or watching scary shows or movies. And remember, shows that we may perceive as relatively benign may still be upsetting for some children.” The same goes for video games. What might seem innocent and fun in the moment can trigger big worries for young children after the fact. It’s fine to use limits built into your devices to shut down screens after a certain amount of time, but be sure to talk to your kids about the expectations and boundaries.
  5. Spend time together. Day trips and travel are fun, but you don’t need to spend a lot of money to create lasting holiday memories with your kids. More often than not, kids tell me they just want to spend time with their parents. They don’t really worry about how that time is spent. “Doing fun things together – be it a hike, a trip, backyard picnics or even cooking together on a regular basis – is more important for your children’s mental health than sports camps or extra holiday academics to get ahead for the next school term,” Newman says. “You will build bonds and memories that will last a lifetime.”
  6. Plan for travel. It might be easier for you to do the packing, but asking your child to help gives him some control. Anxious kids tend to prefer to bring certain comfort items and clothing when they leave home, so ask your child for input. It also helps to discuss the details of the trip, including any layovers or pit stops, and what to expect if you do experience travel delays or other problems.
  7. Slow down. There’s no need to overload them with extra activities and new experiences. Focus on outdoor play and include downtime.

Article by Katie Hurley, first published on ‘Washington Post’.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited for relevance.

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