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18 December, 2018

The greatest gift you can give your child

Five mindful ways to protect your children’s wellbeing this festive season

From Santa visits to elves on the shelves and all the celebrations in between, Christmas is a magical and exciting time for most young people, but for some children the festive season can also bring, or exacerbate, feelings of stress, anxiety, sadness and pressure. St Patrick’s Mental Health Services is encouraging parents to consider some mindful ways to ensure their children’s Christmas is a mentally healthy one.

CEO of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, Paul Gilligan, advises parents that feelings of being overwhelmed, stressed or overstimulated for children are common around this time of year and offers some tips for parents on how they can look after their children’s mental health, or ensure that if mental health difficulties do arise, they are equipped to find the right supports.

Some simple steps include:

 Manage expectations for Christmas Day

Anticipation of Santa’s arrival and of the perfect Christmas day can create unachievable expectation, which can result in young people becoming overwhelmed or feeling let down. Keeping a balance is important. Focus on one or two nice aspects of the day while also acknowledging there will be down times or maybe sad times.

If your child has experienced bereavement or is managing a difficult situation such as family break-up Christmas can be particularly difficult. Asking your child to talk about how they are feeling and encouraging them to open up will help.

 Be aware of risk factors

Children thrive on routine and this is one of the most disruptive times of the year for families as they are travelling, visiting or entertaining.  Bedtimes and mealtimes are out of sync with their usual routine, sugary food is within easy reach and the parameters that we set to manage these on a day-to-day basis can fall by the wayside.  Lack of sleep and out of sync routines can result in tempers and tantrums flying high, so retaining some structure can help avoid unnecessary fallouts, for example, ensuring that the child’s bedtime doesn’t change for the entire holiday period or limiting sugary foods where possible.

Focus on being present

Be in the moment with your children. While children are inevitably excited by the prospect of gifts, the best gift that we can give them during the festivities, or any other time, is our presence. Try to include somethings that involve activities together as part of their Christmas presents or incorporate it into Christmas day plans. Something as simple as taking an hour away from cooking or entertaining to play a game with our children can have lasting positive impacts.

Give the gift of mindful listening

Christmas is such a busy period that often parents don’t have time to engage in meaningful conversations where they can actively listen to their children. Children are extremely intuitive so don’t underestimate their power to know when parents are really listening to what they’re saying. Taking time to actively listen to your child can have significant effects on their ability to freely express themselves, not just over the holidays but throughout their youth, as well as also providing opportunities for a more open parent-child relationship. 

Know the signs and seek support

Children may act out at this time of year and this is to be expected, but if a change in behaviour is or has been noticeable for more than two weeks or is present for a prolonged period after the holidays, it could signal that there may be something else going on. Keep in mind the signs and symptoms that would suggest you might need to consider seeking help for your child: 

  • Prolonged changes in sleep patterns
  • Increased hyperactivity
  • Increased irritability
  • Changes in behaviour
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of interest in activities

If you find yourself worrying that your child may be in distress or is having difficulties, you don’t need to wait until the New Year to seek help or advice.  Always have your GP out of hours number to hand or ring one of the many helplines over this period.  

Christmas can be one of the most exciting and magical times of the year for children and by taking some simple steps to stay mindful of their mental health at this time, it can help make the holidays more enjoyable and memorable - not just for children but for the parents too.