This is the time of the year where most of us are dusting off our holiday decorations and getting together our grocery store lists. The months of November and December seem to be a blur of wrapping paper, sugary food, and a lot of time with family. This year offers a unique challenge to the holiday season due to the nature of the pandemic. At a time where like clockwork we all flock to our grandparents, aunts, and cousins' houses we are being told to not travel, and not gather in large groups for the safety of our own family and for families across the nation. While doing our part to slow the spread of COVID-19 is essential, it is okay to be upset about how it will impact the holidays. The holidays are a stressful time for many, but it is also a time where memories are made that last a lifetime, and memories can still be made this year. Below are some tips on how you can manage your children's expectations for this year while always keeping the emphasis on their (and your own) mental health.
Have an age-appropriate conversation about why this year is different
In our article last week; Make Your Emotional Safety a Priority During the Election and Pandemic we touched on the fact that children have a good sense of the tension and stress that is going on in your house. They know more than you think they do, and it can make them very anxious to sense this stress but not know what is going on. Now, in the middle of November, start those conversations with them about what this year is going to look like, and set their expectations early. Let them know what will be different, and what will be the same about this year. Their lives have been changed because of the pandemic and the switch to distance learning so this will not be new news to them. Answer any questions they have and reassure them that this year will still be fun, and you will still make it a point to celebrate the holidays that you always do, it will just look a little different.
Let everyone feel their feelings
It is upsetting not being able to get together with our extended families this year. While we can still make it a special holiday season it is okay to let your children, and yourself feel upset about how COVID is impacting your usual plans. Your kids most likely have been looking forward to seeing their grandparents, cousins, and other family members and it is a shame that the holidays will look different this year. Keep the communication pathways open and encourage your children to share with you how they are feeling about this holiday season. If you sense that they are upset but aren't sharing with you, perhaps tell them that you are bummed to miss out on going to grandmas, but you are excited to get extra time in your PJs. This may get them to open up, and also allow them to see some of the positive ways this could impact them (like not having to get dressed up for a holiday dinner/party or in-person religious service).
Remember to check in with yourself, your children, your partner, and your extended family members this year. If you have any family who lives on their own make it a point to call them and remind them that you love them and are there for them. This is an isolating time for many and it is a good time to remind your loved ones that you are just a phone call or video chat away.
Spend time putting together things to send to family members you won't get to see
In our tip sheet Staying Connected at a Distance, we mentioned the idea that people, especially children love getting personalized things in the mail. Get your kids excited about the ideas of sending something to the loved ones you can't see this year. If you were already planning on sending someone a gift in the mail let your children break out the markers and create a personalized card for each family member. If you are not sending a gift, make some Thanksgiving, or holiday cards and send them out to your family members. If you and your children do celebrate Thanksgiving and you decide to send out cards make the focus of the card gratitude, and have your children write down why they are thankful for that family member. This is a fun way to spend time with your child, your family will love getting a personalized card, and your child will feel like they had a part in doing something nice for the people they are missing this year.
Make traditions that are specific to your immediate family
Growing up, just like most kids, I loved the holidays. Time with my extended family, good food, and of course presents; what is there to not like? However, by far, and to this day, my favorite holiday tradition involves just my immediate family. Every Christmas Eve we would make it a point to all slowdown and be present with each other. After months of my mom tirelessly preparing for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we took this day to order take out and either play cards or watch movies together. It is a simple tradition that all of my siblings and I cherish. Use the 2020 holiday season to develop or further strengthen traditions within your immediate family. Have a game night, watch a favorite movie, or just sit together and talk.
Some ways that my parents made this simple tradition fun (especially when we were much younger) was to have everyone wear colorful Christmas pajamas, get food that is liked by the whole family, play holiday music, and really make it a point to be present with us and drown out anything that was happening outside of the house. Try and look at the silver lining of this year and recognize that while it means less time with extended family, it means extra time with just the people in your household. It is never too late to start a tradition and this could be the year where you eat turkey in your pajamas or add your children into parts of your traditions that are usually reserved for older members of your family (i.e. lighting your Menorah, preparing food, etc.).
Give them some ownership on how this holiday season is going to go
This is, obviously, an abnormal holiday season. What is great (and stressful) about that is that you can make it whatever you want it to be. Let your kids have input about what this year will be. If they want to put up the tree a month early; let them, you won't be having anyone over for Thanksgiving anyway. Ask them what they would like to do this holiday season to make it special. If they want a movie marathon where you all wear PJs and make popcorn; do it, we will (hopefully) never have a holiday season like this again so make it memorable and fun. Let them be a part of making your holiday meals, and if you plan to decorate let them help (nobody will see your house this season so if your decorations are not perfect it does not matter).
Try and look at the positive implications of a COVID holiday season
Children with social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges thrive on routine. This essential routine was taken from them when classes were switched to distance learning, however now (hopefully) it is becoming more of a norm for your child. As much as you would love to take a trip to grandma and grandpas this year, it is helpful to your child's routine that they will be staying home. Now they can wake up in their own bed, have the mornings they are used to and you don't have to pack up your entire family and load them in the car. This holiday season has the potential to take some stress (physically, emotionally, and financially) off of your plate and you can enjoy the time with your family, rather than stressing about making it perfect for them.
Throughout this article, we have hinted at a couple of things you could explain to your child that will be good about this year. As many children do, yours may hate getting dressed up in itchy fussy outfits, and this year they may have to a lot less, or even not at all. Think of all of the things that your child does not particularly like about a usual holiday season and remind them that although they may miss out on some of the good stuff, they also will miss some of the bad, or irritating aspects of the holiday season.
In our article; Family Support Partners; Who they Are and How They Can Help You we discussed how one of our FSPs would go to a family or neighborhood party and look at all of the other children playing and the other parents laughing. She would think to herself that none of them are going through what she is; none of them get it. Perhaps you relate to this sentiment and it can be somewhat of a relief to not have to feel that sense of isolation, or not feel like you have to explain any of your child's actions or any of your parenting decisions to your family this year. We know our friends and families mean well when they give advice but truly nobody knows what raising a child with social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges is like if they have not done it themselves. To talk to someone who has, reach out to our FREE and CONFIDENTIAL Family Support Partners here.