American holidays seem built upon a peculiar mix of happiness and high anxiety. We love to celebrate. But it's mingled with the stress of cooking elaborate dinners, shopping for gifts and attending obligatory social events.
And this year, perhaps unlike any in recent memory, holiday stress could reach lofty new proportions for adults and children.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the spate of anthrax-tainted letters, the war in Afghanistan and the economic recession have affected everyone. Tension over those events, together with worries about the future, all point to a handle-with-care holiday season.
"Holidays, independent of the world around us, bring out the best and the worst in families," says Robin H. Gurwitch, a psychologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. "People need to think ahead as much as possible this year so that buttons don't get pressed."
Parents, especially, should remember that they aren't the only ones on edge, mental health experts caution. Children continue to be affected and confused in ways adults may find surprising. Because it's hard for them to put recent events in perspective, many of them may be understandably anxious.
"Unlike most tragic events that are one shot, this has been ongoing," says Gurwitch, who counseled families after the Oklahoma City bombing. "As parents, you don't want to be blindsided by not thinking about how this is affecting your family."
Start with yourself
But before adults deal with their children, they should reflect on their own emotions, experts say.
Although parents should, when appropriate, remind children that they are safe, that message could ring hollow if the adult doesn't feel safe himself, says Bernard Arons, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Mental Health Services.
"Young people are picking up on the stress and tension," he says. "Some people say, 'Oh, my kids aren't aware of what's going on at all.' I really think that kids are very perceptive observers of adult behavior."
Until now, adults may have avoided discussing frightening news with children present. But if the extended family or friends gather for Thanksgiving and subsequent holidays, it could become a forum for adults to discuss what's happened and to vent bottled-up feelings.
Keep in mind that children may be listening and that what you say could be upsetting, says Robin Goodman, of New York University's Child Study Center. It's healthy for adults to discuss their feelings in appropriate settings, such as adults-only social outings. But children don't need to be burdened with their parents' serious worries the fear of losing a job, for example. Children should not be their parents' de facto counselors, experts say.
Don't ignore it
To some extent, parents do need to tell their children what's going on. For example, depending on the children's ages, parents might explain that the holiday shopping budget is smaller this year because of the slow economy or that a favorite relative isn't coming for a Thanksgiving visit because he or she is afraid to get on an airplane.
"I'm really of the opinion that reality should not be hidden from children," says Dr. Lewis P. Lipsitt, professor emeritus of psychology at Brown University. But it should be presented in age-appropriate ways, he added.
Similarly, pretending everything is fine or faking cheerfulness may backfire, experts say, because children are picking up other signals.
And children may well be having difficulty dealing with recent events. While adults can make some sense of the war, terrorism and the nation's economic problems through media coverage and discussions with other adults, a child's reality can be skewed by rumors at school or inaccurate information circulated through e-mail.
A middle-school-age child is likely to come home with a tale that a terrorist attack is imminent. A 6-year-old may have heard stories about bombs planted under the playground.
"A parent may feel relatively safe. But their child may go to school, and someone pulls a (terrorism-related) prank. The child's world is affected in a different way," Goodman says. "Parents often misjudge and underestimate what is going on with their kids."
Even very young children are trying to assimilate recent events, says Morgan Graham, director-teacher of the All Children Great and Small preschool in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.
"Children are playing firefighter and search-and-rescue constantly," she says. "Those are themes in their play that I've never seen before."
The school has encouraged the children's expression, even purchasing plastic firefighter hats, Graham says, because play helps young children master their feelings.
Parents also should encourage younger children to ask questions to get a sense of how they are coping, Gurwitch says. Often they may ask the same question repeatedly, gaining a better understanding of the issue each time the parent answers.
Young children who are scared or anxious may act out or express fears that seem unrelated to terrorism but may, indeed, be linked to recent events, she adds. A new fear be it dogs or spiders or something else may signal a child's insecurity or fear about their personal safety.
Besides discussing anxieties, families should be proactive in their approach to the holidays. For example, parents could discuss with their children how people should treat each other.