Helping Your Child Cope with Holiday Stress 

While the holidays can be a fun and joyous time for children, many factors can contribute to increased stress for children. These factors include changes in school/play routine, delayed bedtime hour, increased sweets, and even parental stress. Learn how to help your child cope with holiday stress by using a set of techniques called relaxation training.

Research has demonstrated that when a child imagines an experience, he or she may experience the same physical sensations as if the experience actually occurred in real life. A well-known imagery exercise that succinctly exemplifies this mind-body connection involves a guided imagery using a lemon. Close your eyes and imagine a newly sliced lemon in your hand. Imagine that you’re bringing the lemon to your mouth and squeezing the lemon juice onto your tongue. Most people will describe that, following this imagery exercise, their mouths produced saliva in response to imagining the lemon juice dripping onto their tongues. This exercise can be used to demonstrate to children the mind-body connection; that the mind can imagine an event, and the body can respond to that imagined event as if it were occurring in real life. This example can be used to educate your child that while imagining events may cause a physically stressful response, your child can use his or her imagination to calm down and relax his or her mind and body.

Relaxation Strategies

The following is a list of relaxation strategies. You are encouraged to be creative in teaching relaxation strategies. For instance, if your child enjoys puppetry, you may use a puppet in role-playing breathing techniques. If you have a child who loves using the computer and tends to be highly motivated to using one, you may decide to teach the child relaxation techniques by showing a video on that teaches about deep breathing.

Deep Breathing: When a child feels stressed, he or she often inadvertently takes shallow breaths, which can cause the child to experience panic. To counter this shallow breathing, you can learn how to take deep breaths.

One teaching strategy is to use “bubble breathing.” Have at least 2 bubble bottles with wand on hand and engage the child in a contest to see who can blow the biggest bubble. Teach the child that deep breaths (rather than shallow breaths) are required to blow the biggest bubbles.

A second game is to use pinwheels. Engage the child in a contest of who can spin the pinwheel the longest. Teach the child that in order to get the pinwheel to spin for an extended period of time, you have to take a deep breath, and breathe out slowly. Always link the skill to a scenario that the child can use the skill. In this instance, have the child identify situations in which deep breathing (or “bubble breathing”) may be used to help calm down the body. Parents are encouraged to be creative in how they teach their child the skills. For instance, for adolescents who have an interest in singing or pop stars, you can engage them in a singing contest to see who can sing a note for the longest duration.

Parent: “Close your eyes, and take some deep breaths. Imagine your stomach is a balloon, take in a big deep, slow breath as if you are filling up your stomach like a big balloon. Your chest is not moving, just your stomach. Now, let out your breath slowly, and watch your as stomach deflates like a balloon with a slow leak. Now, take in a big deep breath, keep breathing in until I count to 5.”

Visualization/Guided Imagery Sample Script: Learning how to visualize a calming scenery may aid in decreasing anxious arousal or even stop anxious thoughts.

Parent: “What is your favorite place in the whole world?
Child: “The beach. I love hanging on the beach.”
Parent: “OK, we are going to practice a relaxation exercise. Close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Imagine you are at the beach. You are sitting on the warm sand. You can feel the grainy sand in between your toes, the feel of the warm sun against your face, and the salty smell of the ocean water in your nose. You feel the warm breeze against your skin. As you notice the waves crashing in front of you, you hear the sounds of the sea gulls flying by above you. You take some more deep breaths. With each slow, deep breath, you realize that you are completely relaxed and calm. Your body is completely relaxed, while you are sitting on the sand.”

Other strategies include meditation and yoga, which can be done via classes or by viewing developmentally age-appropriate videos online.

For a comprehensive list and additional strategies, please refer to Drs. Nguyen Williams and Crandal’s Modular CBT for Children and Adolescents with Depression. Also available in-store or online at Barnes & Noble.


Talking to Children About Mass Shootings

With the spate of recent mass shootings, you may be wondering about whether you should talk to your children about the violence, or how to talk to them. Here is evidence-based information from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

The recent shooting has evoked many emotions—sadness, grief, helplessness, anxiety, and anger. Children who are struggling with their thoughts and feelings about the stories and images of the shooting may turn to trusted adults for help and guidance.

• Limit media exposure. Limit your child’s exposure to media images and sounds of the shooting, and do not allow your very young children to see or hear any TV/radio shooting-related messages. Even if they appear to be engrossed in play, children often are aware of what you are watching on TV or listening to on the radio. What may not be upsetting to an adult may be very upsetting and confusing for a child. Limit your own exposure as well. Adults may become more distressed with nonstop exposure to media coverage of this shooting.

• What does your child already know? Start by asking what your child/teen already has heard about the events from the media and from friends. Listen carefully; try to figure out what he or she knows or believes. As your child explains, listen for misinformation, misconceptions, and underlying fears or concerns. Understand that this information will change as more facts about the shooting are known.

• Start the conversation. Talk about the shooting with your child. Not talking about it can make the event even more threatening in your child’s mind. Silence suggests that what has occurred is too horrible even to speak about or that you do not know what has happened. With social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, text messages, newsbreaks on favorite radio and TV stations, and others), it is highly unlikely that older children and teenagers have not heard about this. Chances are your child has heard about it, too.

• Gently correct inaccurate information. If your child/teen has inaccurate information or misconceptions, take time to provide the correct information in simple, clear, age appropriate language.

• Encourage your child to ask questions, and answer those questions directly. Your child/teen may have some difficult questions about the incident. For example, she may ask if it is possible that it could happen at your workplace; she is probably really asking whether it is “likely.” The concern about re-occurrence will be an issue for caregivers and children/teens alike. While it is important to discuss the likelihood of this risk, she is also asking if she is safe. This may be a time to review plans your family has for keeping safe in the event of any crisis situation. Do give any information you have on the help and support the victims and their families are receiving. Like adults, children/teens are better able to cope with a difficult situation when they have the facts about it. Having question-and-answer talks gives your child ongoing support as he or she begins to cope with the range of emotions stirred up by this tragedy.

• Common reactions. Children/teens may have reactions to this tragedy. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, they may have more problems paying attention and concentrating. They may become more irritable or defiant. Children and even teens may have trouble separating from caregivers, wanting to stay at home or close by them. It’s common for young people to feel anxious about what has happened, what may happen in the future, and how it will impact their lives. Children/teens may think about this event, even when they try not to. Their sleep and appetite routines may change. In general, you should see these reactions lessen within a few weeks.

• Be a positive role model. Consider sharing your feelings about the events with your child/teen, but at a level they can understand. You may express sadness and empathy for the victims and their families. You may share some worry, but it is important to also share ideas for coping with difficult situations like this tragedy. When you speak of the quick response by law enforcement and medical personnel to help the victims (and the heroic or generous efforts of ordinary citizens), you help your child/teen see that there can be good, even in the mist of such a horrific event.

• Be patient. In times of stress, children/teens may have trouble with their behavior, concentration, and attention. While they may not openly ask for your guidance or support, they will want it. Adolescents who are seeking increased independence may have difficulty expressing their needs. Both children and teens will need a little extra patience, care, and love. (Be patient with yourself, too!).

• Extra help. Should reactions continue or at any point interfere with your children’s/teens’ abilities to function or if you are worried, contact local mental health professionals who have expertise in trauma. Contact your family physician, pediatrician, or state mental health associations for referrals to such experts.

For more information, go to: National Child Traumatic Stress Network at