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Don't let hectic holidays frazzle kids

By Lisa Porterfield
CNN

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(CNN) -- The holidays are supposed to be a happy time for children -- they're on vacation, they get to hang out with their friends and they can sleep in late. Unfortunately, not all kids are in good cheer. Like many adults, children and teenagers can get stressed during the holidays.

How can you tell if a child is feeling frazzled?

According to Marilynn Mueller, a guidance counselor at Kincaid Elementary School in Marietta, Georgia, "Stressed out kids tend to be cranky, impatient and defiant ... and they can complain of stomachaches or headaches or seem unusually tired."

Busy schedules are part of the reason some children get keyed up around this time of year. During the holidays, children often are involved in special events, such as performances and parties.

"While these activities may be fun, they can also cause kids to diverge from their daily routines and become overextended," Mueller says.

This time of year also can be particularly stressful for high school students, says Mark Boggie, lead counselor at Buena High School in Sierra Vista, Arizona, and Western Region vice president of the American School Counselor Association.

"Many students are going through final exams and wrapping up a semester of work, which adds to the pressure of the holidays."

And while some kids are dealing with the stress of being overextended, others are coping with stressful changes at home.

"For families that have experienced a major change like a divorce or death, or who have a parent on active military duty, the holidays can be particularly difficult," says Dr. David Fassler, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vermont, and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont.

"It can bring up, for kids and adults, the loss of the intact family and all the complex emotions that go along with it."

How can adults help?

If you have children, involve them in holiday planning and let them know ahead of time about the events that are going to take place.

Children also need time to adjust to unexpected schedule changes and to prepare emotionally for certain activities, such as trips and family gatherings.

And as the holidays get under way, try not to overload your kids' schedules. "Give the child some space as far as not making them attend every function or every family gathering. If the child wants to have some alone time, then allow that to happen," Boggie suggests.

The holidays can be stressful for even the most laid-back adult, and kids take their cues from grown-ups. "Children whose parents have a hard time dealing with stress are more likely to act out," Mueller says.

Should the pressures of organizing family activities or buying the perfect gift be getting to you, you can trim back on what you are trying to do.

Mueller urges parents to choose activities to mark the holidays that are both meaningful and manageable. "There is no 'perfect' way to do the holidays," she says. "You can decorate your house, but you don't have to display every decoration that is in your attic."

If someone is missing from your family because of divorce or death, or because they are in the military, try not to overcompensate for their absence, Fassler says.

"You can't make up for those kinds of losses through extra presents," he says. "What most kids really want is your time and attention."

Sometimes life can get hectic at home. If this is the case, make sure that your children stick to their school schedules. For some kids, schools can offer refuge from holiday stress. "They provide students with a safe and calm space and keep them on task and in a routine," Mueller says.

If you are a teacher, pay attention to your students' emotions and reactions, Fassler urges. It's possible that one of your students could be dealing with a recent separation or loss. "These kids may not be feeling quite as excited and enthusiastic as the rest of the class, and they shouldn't be pushed to act in a way that is different from how they are feeling," he says.

While it may be easier said than done, try to take time for yourself during the holidays, Fassler suggests.

"If parents are feeling good about the holidays and are doing things that they enjoy and are getting enough rest, it will be easier for them to help their kids," he says.

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