As winter break quickly approaches, many children and their families are eager for a chance to relax, unwind, and enjoy some much-needed time away from the demands of school. However, for many children, this time of year can also be a source of significant stress. In particular, children with developmental delays, AD/HD, anxiety disorders, and others who thrive on predictability may struggle with the change in routine and the increased unstructured time that comes along with breaks from school. If families are traveling, this can present even more challenges as kids are confronted with unfamiliar places, frequent transitions, unexpected changes in plans, and long, “boring” car or plane rides!
Parents can help their child adjust to this time by staying patient, planning ahead, and being alert to any signs that their child is beginning to feel overwhelmed. There are also several tips that may be helpful to set kids up for a more successful winter vacation:
Be prepared! – Talk to your child ahead of time about what their winter break is expected to entail: whether they will be traveling versus staying at home, whether family will be visiting, and how many days they will be out of school. Younger children may also need reminders that they will not see classmates and teachers for several days while they are on break. Helping them be prepared ahead of time can alleviate anxiety once the change in routine occurs.
Keep a Routine – Sticking to the school-day routine as much as possible during breaks can also promote a sense of stability and security. This can include chores, mealtimes, and the evening/morning routines. In particular, keeping bedtime and wake-up times consistent can be very helpful, and can also make it easier to transition back to the school routine once winter break ends.
Use a family schedule – Similarly, a visual schedule, such as a large calendar, can help children feel more prepared for what each day will entail, as well as how many days are left before school begins again. This schedule may also include information about the daily routine, in addition to special trips or outings.
Build in downtime – While keeping a schedule and routine can create a sense of security, it is also important to make sure your child is not overscheduled. Specifically building downtime into their daily routine offers a chance to unwind and recharge.
Be ready for changes – It may be helpful to prepare your child ahead of time for changes in plans, and what they might do in those situations. (For example, brainstorming what they can do instead of going to the park if it rains tomorrow.) It can also be helpful to prepare kids for situations that have the potential to be unpleasant. (For example, brainstorming what they can do if they are feeling annoyed with their younger cousin who is visiting.)
Traveling companions – It is not uncommon for kids to feel anxious while traveling, especially if they are not very familiar with the location. Encouraging them to bring along special transitional items, such as preferred toys or stuffed animals, may help ease this process. Conversely, if they will not be permitted to bring certain items while traveling due to concern that these items may get lost, it will be important to prepare them ahead of time for this and generate alternate solutions. It is also helpful to maintain the regular routine as much as is possible while traveling (i.e., keeping the same nighttime routine).
Focus on the positive – Make sure to offer specific praise when your child is able to be flexible and tolerate frustration during vacation; this is not always an easy task for kids (or grownups)!
Although it is impossible to plan for every aspect of winter break, being as consistent, patient, and prepared as possible can go a long way in easing children into this brief new routine, and making their vacation a more relaxing one.
Kati Ann Leonberger, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist