02:29 PM CST on Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Dr. Aditya Sharma, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says his patients are usually more anxious this time of year.
And all too often, it's parents who are trying to make their kids happy who are causing the problem, running themselves ragged baking, decorating, entertaining and spending beyond their means.
"Most adults don't realize that their actions speak louder than words when it comes to kids," says Sharma, who works with the Holiner Psychiatric Group at Medical City Dallas Hospital. He says he and his wife keep Christmas simple for their two children with a small tree, a couple of presents and relaxed meals
"When you're telling your kids you're having a fantastic meal and lots of presents, but you're stressed out by an argument about how much money you've spent or how you're going to pay your next month's bills, the kids pick up on that rather than what's coming out of your mouth."
Dr. Kay Allensworth, the Texas coordinator of the American Psychological Association's public education campaign, says she was struck by how few parents are aware of how stressed children are today, as revealed in the APA's 2010 Stress in America survey.
As many as 47 percent of tweens (defined as 8-to-12-year-olds) and 33 percent of teens feel sad when their parents are stressed, according to the report, which was conducted online by Harris Interactive in August.
Sometimes parents, caught up in what they see as the "big" worries of holding on to a job, keeping a roof over the family's head and food on the table, don't take kids' anxieties as seriously as they should, she says.
It's that lack of perspective, Allensworth suggests, that leaves us surprised when kids commit suicide, turn to self-destructive behaviors or suffer poor health.
At the same time, she says, parents can't help kids if they don't take care of themselves, because their state of mind can often affect their children's state of mind.
That's why she would like to see parents "take a bubble bath; take a deep breath. Exercise is good. Exercise is one of the biggest antidepressants there is."
The APA also offers several holiday stress-reducing ideas at www.apa.org/helpcenter. The tips include:
•Have each family member share something they appreciate about another.
•Take time to acknowledge those who aren't with you.
•Give a child paper and markers to draw whatever is making the child sad or mad.
•Volunteer time for those who are less fortunate.
Christmas is a special time for Dr. Brad Schwall, a therapist at the Pastoral Counseling and Education Center in Dallas, as well as a frequent contributor to WFAA-TV and the Dallas Moms Blog.
The father of Sam, 13, and Grace, 9, he'll never forget the Christmas of three years ago when his wife, Lynn, had been treated for breast cancer.
"It was difficult for her because she had lost her hair and had just been through a stressful time. I think facing challenges like that gives us a sense of being out of place – our worry or concern contrasts with the joy we'd like to be feeling or others appear to be feeling."
Lynn is in complete remission, and for that her family is grateful.
It's a reminder, Schwall says, of what is truly important about the holiday.
"It's less about material goods and more about togetherness. I truly believe that if our focus is on our care for each other and the meaning of the holidays, that's going to be a priority for the kids as well.
"We have been talking in church about true peace and true contentment both as an absence of war and as a state of being," he says, "and that is what I want my kids to have. I want them to have a sense of peace about who they are and I believe we can have that even in difficult times."