Why does my child get anxious before holidays and birthdays?

“How long till my birthday?”

“When is three weeks up?”

“Is it Halloween yet?”

Parents hear such questions whenever special occasions approach. Children have a hard time waiting, and since their concept of time is different from an adult’s, they ask about holidays over and over again. Parents can tell their excited child that Christmas is four weeks away and almost immediately, she will ask again, “How long before Christmas?”

She begins anticipating a holiday as soon as preparations begin. Her day care or nursery school class might make Valentine cards weeks in advance, and her friends might discuss Halloween costumes long before October. Christmas preparations sometimes begin before Thanksgiving, giving children a great deal of time to watch holiday commercials, see store decorations going up, and think about presents.

When there’s a long period of anticipation before a special event, children get anxious and excited and may go through behavior changes, becoming sillier, more active, and more likely to whine. Children who are admonished to “be good” in order to get birthday or Christmas gifts may feel pressured and become more aggressive. It’s very hard under any circumstances for a child to be consistently good, and when she’s anxiously anticipating a holiday, behaving well is that much harder. Some parents find that their child’s behavior improves if they ease up on the holiday pressure, perhaps giving a surprise treat (“Just because I love you”) to slow the build-up.

Parents also can try to help their child deal with the waiting period by giving her a calendar to mark off, or by making a special paper chain. Each day for a week or two, she can tear off one link; the day all the links are gone is the day she’s been waiting for. These devices help some children stay calm, but generally children remain very excited. Parents should be patient with the excitement and expect that their child will continually want the celebration to begin “now.” They can sympathize if they consider their own feelings before special parties or vacations.

Your child may get particularly worked up before her birthday. Since party preparation takes time, you may start planning the celebration weeks before the date, while your child considers whom to invite and what presents she’d like. She may be very excited about the gifts and party or she may have mixed feelings about being the center of attention and may decide, as one five-year-old did, “Nobody should sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me at my party.” She may worry ahead of time about having eight or ten friends over at once, and may be concerned about sharing her toys and letting the guests see her presents. One child, concerned about her anticipated gifts, said, “At the party, no one can come and play in my room.” Although there is no way to keep your child from feeling excited and anxious before her birthday, if you anticipate her feelings, you will be better able to reassure her.

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