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Festive stress: when the season feels anything but merry, top Priory experts offer their advice on how to cope

Anxiety within families can be exacerbated at Christmas by overscheduling, so ‘let it slow!’ says a top UK child psychiatrist.

To reduce family stress, child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, Group Associate Medical Director of the Priory Group based at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford, calls on parents to ‘schedule unscheduled time’ for their children and then make a New Year’s resolution to cut back on their children’s extra-curricular activities.

She says that in the countdown to Christmas – when many families are feeling the strain of back-to-back classes, sports fixtures, endless concerts and club events – there is little time for downtime or spontaneous family fun.

Dr van Zwanenberg said she was not advocating undirected hours of unfulfilling TV-watching and texting.

But she says; “It is so important that young people have time to relax and to be allowed to act their age – as well as get an adequate number of hours’ restorative sleep.  One of the most crucial points in determining the balance of activities versus unstructured time is to work out how much time there is for quality family time – and what better time than the Christmas break to implement a new ‘regime of relaxation’.

“Sport and clubs are beneficial in many ways but should not take precedence over other important aspects of young people’s development – and that includes relaxing with your family and learning how to embrace boredom.

“Downtime is when a child’s imagination really takes grip, and when they learn to structure their own time and take charge themselves. Children who are directed by adults every moment of their lives never learn to direct themselves.”

She adds: “Many older children and teens are already faced with the prospect of returning to mock exams at the start of a new term and whilst revision and preparation is important over the holidays, many can end up feeling over-stretched and stressed, especially if they are also involved in an unmanageable amount of extra-curricular activities during term time.

“I have seen some young people – who are talented academically and at extra-curricular activities - become very anxious due to the pressure to succeed in so many different aspects of life. They are literally exhausted trying to fit everything in.  This can then impact on family dynamics as they become irritable and harder to communicate with.”

She said that allowing children to be bored was essential for their cognitive and social development, especially in areas of imagination and self-sufficiency.

Whilst many children will be receiving new tablets, smartphones and games consoles this Christmas, parents shouldn’t be afraid to limit their use in favour of children re-learning how to simply “amuse themselves”, and spending time chatting to an older relative or guest.

So, to help families get the best out of the Christmas break – and that enforced break from the term-time routine – Dr van Zwanenberg suggests some pragmatic tips for parents and carers to help keep children’s commitments in check:

  • Walk and talk – the Christmas holidays is a great excuse to get out and enjoy the fresh air, without the distraction of the TV or tablet. Use the time to chat openly; laugh and maybe broach sensitive subjects that have been off limits during term-time (parents might be surprised at what teenagers suddenly decide to share)
  • Get board, not bored! – from Scrabble to Snap to Uno, Pointless to Pictionary, board games are back and can be a great bonding experience for all members of the family, whatever their age, interests (and inhibitions), playing as equals
  • Tear up the timetable – use the festive fortnight to take a break from all regular commitments, clubs and sporting fixtures. The rest will benefit both body and mind. And consider whether you really want to return to all these activities in 2019
  • Switch off social media and socialise with your nearest and dearest – Shut the door on the rest of the world and focus on family
  • And finally, make 2019 the year for re-dressing the balance and making some serious but sensible choices about prioritising time and not allowing the endless expectations placed on young people today to succeed, result in stress and poor self-esteem.

For parents, Dr Natasha Bijlani says the festive period can be a challenging time for anyone struggling to juggle many commitments.

Christmas is viewed as a time for unadulterated happiness, partying and socialising with family and friends, but for others, the diminishing daylight hours, the pressure to be upbeat at all times, and memories of family members who are absent can make the season a very difficult time.

Last year, the charity Samaritans, urged people to stop striving for a perfect Christmas, after a survey of 1,160 adults in the UK found that 50 per cent1 of people hide their feelings at Christmas to keep others happy. Another survey by Mind revealed that nearly 60 per cent of people with mental health problems have experienced panic attacks over the festive period2.

Mental health issues are common, and not exclusive to the Christmas period, but they may be heightened by it.

Dr Bijlani, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton, provides her tips on how hassled parents can look after their mental health over the Christmas period.

  1. Don’t look back on the past year – As Christmas is the end of the chronological year, people tend to look back on what they have achieved and what they haven’t. If you are suffering with depression or low self-esteem, there is a real risk that any negative feelings of under-achievement, or the past year not living up to your expectations, are exacerbated. Focus on the positives and set goals you want to achieve in the following year.
  2. Get out the house during daylight hours – winter months can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in those vulnerable to the condition. Shorter daylight hours combined with lack of sunshine can impact negatively on your mood. Many people find themselves staying in the house over the Christmas period, however, try and get out at least once a day, even if it is just for a short walk.
  3. Everything in moderation – Over the Christmas period it can be tempting to over-indulge in both food and drink and this can be a way of coping with difficult feelings. Drinking excessively over Christmas will impact on mood and anxiety. Eating too much can also induce feelings of guilt and low self-esteem. Try to do some exercise which involves getting outside – running, walking - as this can help to improve your health and wellbeing.
  4. Volunteer in the community – Christmas can be an isolating period. Many organisations and charities reach out to people to spend Christmas morning with the elderly or helping the homeless. Whether you wrap wanted gifts for local charities, or volunteer at your local hospital, or help cook lunch for the homeless then it can give you a real sense of purpose and make a difference to someone else’s day.
  5. Don’t be afraid to say “no” – The festive season, or “party season”, can involve more social pressures than usual. A recent survey by Mind, found that one in four adults3 in UK feel anxious about social gatherings during the festive season. The pressure to fit in can become intense and whilst it is important to get out and about and mix with other people, don’t beat yourself up if you turn down an invite or make an excuse to leave early.
  6. Have realistic expectations about family gatherings – Christmas is always hailed as ‘family time’ and this can place pressure on already strained family relationships, particularly amongst those who don’t see each other very often and aren’t used to spending a long period of time together. Managing your expectations can help reduce the effects these feelings can have on you.
  7. Live in the moment – There's no point dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Living in the moment is easier said than done but simple mindfulness exercises can help to focus your mind on the present. Find out more at
  8. Talk about your anxieties – Talking with a friend or relative about the things that are worrying you can help you to realise that some of them aren't so important after all, and help you to focus on one or two things that are at the root of your worry. The Samaritans provide a free, confidential, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week support on 116 123. They also have local branches in many areas where you can drop in to speak to someone face-to-face. For more information visit: There is also a free confidential hotline for older people: Silverline
  9. Get enough sleep – Don’t watch TV in bed. It’s generally stimulating for the brain. The same goes for streaming on a laptop or tablet. Charge your phone and devices outside your room, and don’t use the alarm on your phone as an excuse to keep your phone by your bed.
  10. Listen to music – Listen to a relaxing playlist of, for example, light classical music that induces relaxation. The best suggestion is a 30-minute playlist, especially before bed.



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The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, stress, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health. Read about Priory in the media, and see how Priory is changing people’s lives for the better in our new videos

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