The holidays can be a special season for families, they are often filled with holiday foods, decorations, celebrations, and traditions – all of which have the general aim of creating memories and bringing families closer together. But this year is different. Because of the pandemic those special traditions may need to be postponed or even cancelled – causing many children, parents, and families, around the world, to experience some kind of loss. Nevertheless, parents’ desires to provide a happy holiday for their family is likely not extinguished. But with so many difficult and complex feelings and events, what can parents do to help foster a positive and happy holiday season?
Acknowledge, process, and mourn
Sadness, frustration, anxiety, fear, anger, loneliness – none of these emotions feel good and most everyone does their best to avoid such painful feelings. While feelings like these are sometimes unavoidable, they are appropriate, normal, and healthy responses to when bad things happen in life – like COVID-19. But even though we had no control over the virus or its ramifications – it is important to acknowledge, process, and mourn the losses caused by it.
While parents have acquired the maturity to process such unpleasant emotions – children are still learning. From toddlerhood through adolescence, children are actively learning how to navigate complex and troubling emotions. And while adults are able to express themselves verbally, children, instead more often, act out or use behavior to express their emotions. Depending on the age of your child the behavior may look different. For example, a two-year-old may express himself by crying or screaming when told he cannot light the menorah, but a 16-year-old may slam a door when asked to help decorate the Christmas tree. It’s important to not take such behavior personally. Given 2020, children have experienced many losses and they may not be able to respond how parents hope. While this may be disappointing or frustrating, keeping the long-term view of your child’s development is integral. To help children learn how to manage their feelings, parents should allow children the freedom to express their emotions in whatever fashion they need and in their own time frame. When parents offer patience and kindness in response to stomping feet or tears, it not only helps children move past those troubling emotions, but it aids in their maturation and development to handle these emotions as they grow into adults. Punishing, avoiding, or dismissing feelings makes children feel worse and prolongs those feelings or causes the emotions to evolve from one behavior into another. Worse yet, it prevents children from learning healthy ways to respond to those uncomfortable feelings as adults. So instead, if children are acting out, reflect what you are seeing. This will help children open up and use their words to express themselves, which is the goal. In a kind and caring tone, it may sound something like:
‘I heard it when you slammed your door. Are you feeling upset?’
‘You seem annoyed, did something happen?’
‘I see you are upset, I’m here to offer a hug or cuddle if you would like.’
As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. explain in Smart Love, “The way to provide your child with the moral education that will help him become an adult who can tolerate frustration and consistently respect the rights of others is never to isolate the child or withhold your love and affection.”*
Be understanding and flexible
As we have learned from 2020, there is much that is out of our control, and we’ve all had to adapt and carry on with life. The same approach can be applied to parenting over the holidays. If your toddler doesn’t want to talk to nana or papa on Facetime, don’t force her. If your teen wants to listen to music in his room instead of baking cookies, let him. But try to leave the door open so that children feel welcome in the event they change their mind. It may sound something like:
’Okay, if you change your mind, feel free to join us!’
By remaining flexible, your children will feel understood, which brings your relationship closer, and helps to foster happiness during the season.
Focus on connection
Traditions are an important part of the holidays, they help to create both memories and connections with loved ones. But although this year has caused many things to change, there are likely some traditions that families can still observe together in some way or another. Whether it’s singing the same songs as you decorate, playing the same games, or cooking your favorite recipes – preserving some holiday traditions will bring comfort to children during a year that has brought much uncertainty.
If your favorite traditions are being upended, however, get creative. Perhaps you can utilize technology to create a second best alternative. For example, if your children love grandma’s sugar cookies, perhaps you could gather all of the ingredients and make the cookies together through Facetime or Zoom! Or maybe you’ll have more time to create new traditions, like making old family recipes or visiting parts of your area that you normally aren’t able to. Better yet, invite your children’s ideas, recipes, activities, or games – they will feel wonderful contributing to the season’s traditions!
Even though this holiday season may not be ideal, it does not mean it has to be bad. Perhaps the removal of the hustle and bustle is the silver lining, affording for the real joy and true happiness of the season – time and connection with your children and loved ones.
“Of all the gifts you can give your child, this is the most important because it is the foundation of all happiness and goodness and the shield against self-caused unhappiness.”*
Adapted from Distant Celebrations. (November 2020). In the Pursuit of Happiness Smart Love Webinar by Carla Beatrici, Psy.D.; Michael Zakalik, Psy.D.; Angela Hunsicker, LCSW; Maureen Spielman. Smart Love Family Services
*Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child. Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Harvard Common Press. 1999