By Noelle Hause, EdD, LPC, IMH-E
The holiday season is upon us. In many parts of the country, the weather is changing, trees have lost their leaves, decorative lights have been strung, seasonal music is playing, retailers are appealing to consumers through the purposeful placement of toys, candy and baked goods, while smells of cinnamon and pumpkin spice fill malls and food venues. This time of year also brings disruptions in routines as early care settings and adult work schedules change, travel plans are made, and visits with family and friends fill the calendar.
Stress is likely to increase as anticipations and expectations of children and adults are fueled by cognitive, emotional and sensory memories which are often narrated by scripts of family culture and tradition. Some memories are pleasant. Some memories are difficult. Reality may not match these expectations.
There are so many things to process and navigate that it can be difficult for young children to fully understand and communicate their needs, wants, concerns and fears. They may feel ambivalent due to conflicting relationships and loyalties, but not know how to talk about it. They may miss their family and worry about siblings and pets while at the same time want to have fun with the new relationships in their foster family. Some children may experience guilt because they believe their placement in another home is a result of something they did or said.
All of these feelings are normal, yet they can be difficult to untangle when a child has limited language and communication skills. Essentially, the way they behave and interact with others may be their only way of communicating how they feel.
How can you assist infants and young children through the holidays?
Gather information that can help guide you in planning for the holidays. Birth parents have the right to choose and guide the religion of their children even when they are in foster care. Create a narrative that honors both your own family traditions and your child’s family customs. When possible, be flexible and work with the child’s birth family to coordinate visits and incorporate important traditions.
Maintain routines and consistency. You are their stability. Prepare your child for changes. Tell her about the places you are going and the people she will see. Likewise, prepare your family and friends so they can support you as well. Routines help children know what comes next, which helps them to feel safe. Consistent meal and sleep times will help to reduce your child’s fatigue and promote a feeling of well-being and ability to regulate emotions and behaviors. Provide ongoing access to familiarity and comfort, such as favorite stuffed animals, blankets and pillows.
Be prepared for a range of intense feelings such as sadness, anger and excitement. Remember that big emotions may be demonstrated in many ways such as tantrums, whining, regression in already acquired skills, and disruptions in eating and sleeping patterns, especially for infants.
Be present and give your children time and space to share their feelings and stories. Model calm. Be patient.
Adult caregivers play an important role in helping infants and young children to understand, calm and regulate. The way you respond to your child’s needs and model effective strategies can be the most important gift. In essence, this holiday season, “be the present.” •
Noelle Hause, Ed.D., LPC, (IMH-IV)-C, is an Irving Harris Infant Mental Health Fellow graduate and has provided infant and early mental health services including supervision, training and consultation for more than 30 years.