Enduring months of an ongoing pandemic have undoubtedly put a strain on many Atlanta families as they navigate through a series of potential stressors. Virtual schooling, unemployment, underemployment, safety concerns and the effects of social distancing can amount to a buildup of tension. Now, as the holidays approach in the midst of heightened COVID-19 concerns and the flu season, families are likely to feel even more of that stress. With so much going on, it’s important for families to take steps to manage newfound pressures.

“Just as every individual has different ways of coping and reacting to the sort of chronic stress the pandemic is bringing, every family dynamic will be impacted differently as well,” says Dr. Mark Mitchnick, a pediatrician and general manager of mental health at Sharecare, an Atlanta-based digital health and wellness resource founded by Jeff Arnold, Atlanta native and creator of WebMD.

Mitchnick warns that periods of prolonged, high-impact stress in the family environment can lead to increased conflicts, arguments and anxieties within the household. The pediatric doctor says parents should be aware that their children’s stress levels will often be a reflection of their own.

“The two key things for parents to do is, first, focus on setting the right behavioral example, and then be honest with their children,” he says. “The ‘right’ example should not be confused with acting as if nothing is up. It’s obvious that things are not as we like, and it’s counterproductive to say or suggest otherwise.”

Mitchnick says parents can do this by remaining calm and constructively dealing with the problems of the day. If your child has experienced a tough day at school or is disappointed a holiday ritual can’t continue as normal, parents should be especially understanding with their children.

“Our brains are evolutionarily wired to seek certainty, and that’s why the lack of clarity on a resolution is so difficult for us—especially our kids,” the Sharecare mental health expert offers. “So, as parents, if we can’t provide an answer to when things will normalize, we can instead provide certainty around our own behavior, giving our kids something to anchor on.”

Here are some easy tips to help families keep stress levels low and spirits high this holiday season:

  1. Plan more activities together as a family. “No need to complicate this,” Mitchnick says. “Meals together, board games, learning something new or video-chatting with friends or extended family together are great activities.”
  2. The CDC recommends limiting holiday gatherings to members of your household, but that doesn’t mean you can’t connect with family and friends outside of your home. Call by phone or connect virtually with loved ones frequently throughout the holiday season. “Research shows linkages between loneliness or social isolation and health risks such as depression, cognitive decline and even conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure,” the doctor says. “So, being proactive about offering social support is a very beneficial way to support the health and wellbeing of those we love.”
  3. Atlanta has been known to gift us a few warm, sunny days throughout the winter months. Take advantage—it’s good for your physical wellbeing and mental health. “Getting outside is very important, so taking walks or enjoying other outdoor activities are all highly recommended,” Mitchnick shares.
  4. It’s the season for giving but, it doesn’t have to cost you money; consider gifts of your time. “Study after study demonstrates that helping others is one of the best things we can do for our own mental health,” Mitchnick offers. “And doing so with the children in your family not only makes them feel valuable but also provides a great life lesson they will carry with them forever.” Keeping social distancing in mind, families can offer to help their neighbors with raking leaves, picking up groceries or other chores.

It may seem like a no brainer, but the main objective is togetherness. “Even though most families are spending more time together than any time in recent memory, actually doing things together is important for a number of reasons,” Mitchnick concludes.  “Children and adults can feel emotionally isolated, even if they’re not physically alone. So, it’s important that we spend time interacting with our family members.”