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Holiday Table: A New Tone

Children may seem oblivious to the many sources of stresses this year, but they are not. Adults should be sensitive to their feelings and help them put things in perspective, experts say.

November 19, 2001|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

American holidays seem built upon a peculiar mix of happiness and high anxiety. We love to celebrate. But it's commingled 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 people young and old. 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, including last week's plane crash in New York, 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."

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." Many parents discussed the Sept. 11 attacks with their children. But some therapists say parents may be reluctant to discuss the ongoing events. That could be a mistake.

Children sense if their parents or adult relatives are worried, says Gurwitch. "To have children believe we are not stressed out is wishful thinking," she says. "Children are wonderful radar. They can tell when their parents are happy. They can tell when their parents are stressed. They can tell when their parents are sad."

Up 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.

Walking a Fine Line

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.

"Children know that houses get burglarized. They sometimes ask, 'Mommy, can that happen to us?' The realistic answer is, 'Yes, that could happen, but no one around us has had that happen,"' Lipsitt says.

Similarly, pretending everything is fine or faking cheerfulness may backfire, experts say, because children are picking up other signals.

Parents should also reject the notion that, if you talk about something, you make it worse, says Gurwitch, of the University of Oklahoma. It's not reasonable to tell children not to touch the mail but not explain why.

"Even if children don't engage in conversation, they need to know it's OK to ask questions," Gurwitch says. "If parents say, 'I'm going to wait until they bring it up,' children may be thinking, 'My parents aren't talking about this, so I can't bring it up."'

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