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Finding the joy in the holidays when it's difficult

A letter from Kathy Enerlich, executive director, PerformCare New Jersey.

While the holiday season is typically a time of celebration and happiness, it may pose challenges that can negatively affect behavioral health in youth.  In fact, the holidays can be a very stressful time, with changes in children's schedules, as well as recalling past traumatic events such as separation from loved ones.

According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, children, adolescents and young adults who are experiencing loss, serious illness or memory of a lost loved one, or the separation from a family member, may be at increased risk of developing symptoms related to stress, anxiety and depression, particularly during the holidays. The holidays can pique the reminder of a traumatic event and can actually cause or exacerbate depression, stress and anxiety, turning a joyous time of year into a dark time.

What's more is that for youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the holidays pose additional challenges, as these children may have more difficulty adjusting to environmental changes, changes in daily routine and coping with less familiar people. Overstimulation from busy schedules, family gatherings and even flashing holiday lights and loud music actually causes increased anxiety in youth with ASD.

At PerformCare New Jersey, we help parents and youth cope with holiday stressors. This time of year, we receive a higher concentration of calls related to stress, anxiety and depression among youth with developmental conditions like ASD as well as those with behavioral health conditions. What parents need to know is that these conditions are treatable and PerformCare New Jersey can help.

We quickly link parents and youth with experts who can intervene, understand and refer treatment options – many for free – for those affected by behavioral health conditions. We maintain a call center at 1-877-652-7624 to handle concerns and – when needed – authorize a mobile response unit for prompt in-person counseling, usually within one hour of the first call. These services are offered 24/7.

Parents of youth with ASD can help reduce holiday anxiety by implementing simple measures as illustrated by Autism Spectrum Therapies: maintain as normal a routine as possible; decorate gradually; reduce loud noise and music; and provide a quiet space, away from guests and other children, where your child can enjoy his/her new toys without distractions.

Additionally, if parents notice a variation in their child's behavior, such as changes in sleeping or eating patterns, withdrawal from normal activities, feelings of hopelessness and irritability, these may signify a deeper issue and should seek professional help.

Care is available, behavioral and developmental conditions are treatable, and the holidays can be joyous.

Kathy Enerlich, executive director, PerformCare New Jersey