If you celebrate any holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanazza, you may want to bring that excitement into your classroom. Many students look forward to presents from Santa or eight nights of Hanukkah gifts. Some students, however, do not find the holidays to be a pleasant time. For some students the holidays can be overwhelming, over-stimulating, or sometimes traumatic. Knowing how to help students who struggle during the holidays can help alleviate some of their stress and make these times easier to navigate.
HOW TO HELP STUDENTS WITH ANXIETY DURING THE HOLIDAYS
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For many people the holidays are the time when memories are made with family and friends. It is filled with celebrations, gifts, joy and love.
But for some the holidays are extremely difficult. It could be there has been a recent death or divorce in the family. Throwing everything into disarray and chaos, leaving a child grieving their losses. Perhaps the family doesn’t celebrate and a child is feeling left out or even mocked for not celebrating the way their peers do. Others may have small families and the holidays are not a time of togetherness but instead a lonely, isolating time.
Or perhaps the child is spending the holidays in foster care, or has a parent that is spending the holidays in hospital or jail or is absent for another reason.
The holidays are a time of great stress for many, especially if families are struggling financially. Children feel that stress, even if they may not understand why their parents are stressed.
There are many reasons the holidays could be a source of stress and anxiety, rather than excitement and joy, for a student. That is why it is so important that we recognize this and help them navigate this difficult time to the best of our abilities.
Learn more about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences).
Avoid over-stimulating decorations
Holiday decorations can be a lot of fun, but for a student with anxiety, sensory processing disorder, or ADHD, having Christmas lights or ornaments strewn about the classroom can be overwhelming. Be cognizant of your students’ needs, and if you want to have a theme bulletin board, make it just a small part of the classroom.
Use inclusive language
Over winter breaks, many students visit family and friends, but not all students have these opportunities. For students with anxiety fueled by family trauma, talking about family can be especially triggering at this time of year. Talking with students about winter break plans can be a good way to build community, but keep in mind that some students may be anxious about seeing family members or being split between parents during the break. Use words like “family”, “people” or “friends” instead of “mom” and “dad” when talking about their holiday plans.
Avoid specific gifts and family projects
Making holiday gifts for parents can be fun, but for some students, this can be a trigger for anxiety. Every family is different, and for students who don’t live with two parents full time, they may feel they need to make multiple gifts, or in some cases, they may not have anyone to give their project too. If you decide to do a holiday gift project, continue to use inclusive language. Allow students to make their gift for a special person in their life. You may give suggestions, but bridge beyond just parents.
Be the safe place
The holidays can bring up strong emotions for students. Let your students know that your classroom is a safe place to talk about what they are feeling. Greet your students at the door every day, and invite them to have some kind of check-in system with you. They can leave a note if they need to chat privately or need additional support. When students know that you are willing to talk to them about issues they are having, they are more likely to open up and feel safe.
Recognize and validate their emotions
“It’s just a stressful time of year.”
“You’ll be fine once you get some rest.”
These statements may work for people who are simply stressed around the busy time the holidays bring, but for someone with trauma history or anxiety, “calming down” isn’t a magic fix and may simply not be possible. When talking with students use active listening techniques and paraphrase what they are telling you. “I understand that you feel. . .”. Talk about what you can do to alleviate their anxiety in that moment but not ultimately fix the long term problem. If you have anxiety yourself, it’s fine to share that with your students. Let them know that they are not alone.
The holidays can be overwhelming for anyone, but for students with anxiety and struggles in their personal lives, this time of year can be especially difficult. Understand and help your students navigate the season by placing just enough emphasis on holiday activities, providing a safe place, and making your plans inclusive to all types of families.