This is the time of year I am normally counting down the days to holiday break. Every year I can almost set the date on the calendar of around Thanksgiving when nearly everyone on my caseload starts to rev up. When I say “rev up” I mean more phone calls, emails, teacher reports, anxiety, and anger and less motivation, patience, and energy. And it’s not just the therapy world, it’s teachers, coaches, parents…..well nearly everyone. And if I look at my life – me too.
This time a year can be stressful for so many reasons. It’s the shopping, all the activities and celebrations, remembering your child’s outfit for red and green day at school, being out of routine, the colder weather (and for Duluth this year - the blizzard), shorter days, less sun light, and academically trying to get everything complete before semester end.
For many it is an incredibly painful and sensitive time where they may be seeing family members where relationships are strained, adding new family members they might not be so sure about to the celebration, or no family members at all to share in this season. It can also be a season of firsts – in a new community, without a loved one, or the first year with parents that are separated or divorced. All this stress isn’t even covering those with financial strain who are unsure of where their next meal will come from and if there are going to be presents under the tree. Many children are left to wonder why Santa brought their best friend a new video game console but left them a board game. And then they are the young people that struggle with the break and miss the structure, social support, and predictability that the school environment provides.
So if we get a little neuroscientific and think about Dr. Dan Siegel’s Window of Tolerance, our Window of Tolerance shrinks with trauma and stress. This means that we can get more easily hyperaroused and into a sympathetic nervous system response, which may mean anxiety, panic, anger and rage – for all. One one nervous system is stressed out it can put everyone else on high alert.
Lisa Dion identifies four threats to the nervous system in her book Aggression in Play Therapy. They are:
Let’s pause for a moment and think how many of these factors are present during the holiday season. Oh that's right, likely all of them.
If we break it down physical pain absolutely captures physical trauma, but beyond that what about those we work with who escalate quickly when a sibling bumps into them? Or they tire quickly from shoveling snow? There are also certainly many unknowns due to routine being turned upside down during most breaks. Additionally how often as adults to we “grin and bear it” during uncomfortable situations or put on a smile for a holiday we are not so thrilled about? Yea, young people pick up on that and can go into a threat response as they are unsure what is really going on. There are also MANY shoulds of how children “should” act and expectations to be on their best behavior.
So how do we help the young people and families we work with, as well as ourselves, to not just survive in the holiday season, but to thrive? Being clear on WHY we have stress isn’t enough. We need to focus with our families, and ourselves, on the what next. Below are my favorites for both myself and those I work with to
What are your favorite ways to battle holiday overwhelm for either you personally or your clients? Drop a comment below and share!
I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.