The holidays can be described in many ways, but “simple” is not often one of them! The exciting side can look like making plans to see loved ones, arranging mouth-watering food dishes, and bundling up to go sledding. Children are given a highly anticipated break from school and they are excited about family traditions. More often than not, however, the holidays also come with dynamics that children can find difficult to navigate. For instance, the recent loss of a loved one, demanding schedules, and missing family from across borders are just some of the challenges that can feel extra pronounced during the holiday season.
As we approach this holiday season, it is helpful to consider ways in which we can support our children with BIG feelings.
If you are reading this, you are likely a person who bears many responsibilities (e.g., caregiver, professional, partner, friend, etc.). One of the most important things you can do is take care of yourself, so that you have energy left to give over the holidays. While this is not easy by any means, your own well being should top your long list of responsibilities. Maybe that means joining a yoga class, going for a brisk walk, having a cup of tea, or calling a friend to catch up. Just remember, you can’t pour from an empty cup, and the holiday season requires a very large one!
Some children have a difficult time transitioning away from their normal routine. During holiday breaks, it is easy for children to get less sleep, consume more sugar, and spend extra time on screens. However, these factors can contribute to emotional lability. Instead, children can benefit from maintaining a structure that works well for them and the family. Reduce stress and unpredictability by making a visual schedule in advance and previewing it with your child. Add to the household decor by posting it to the refrigerator, and make every effort to help your child stick to it.
All children are different when it comes to sensory processing. Some children are making the noise, while others are overwhelmed by it. Some children love getting dressed up, while others burst with discomfort when introduced to a dress or collared shirt. Some children love a bear hug, while others need personal space. Holiday parties can be demanding in these ways, so it is important to understand and support your child’s individual needs. Your child may feel more comfortable greeting others with a fist bump or high five, especially when it comes to family members or guests who they are less familiar with. You can also preview ways for your child to communicate with you that they need a sensory break. They may benefit from a walk with you, or a quiet space in the house to draw or play. Discuss and plan for these possibilities in advance, to reduce unnecessary stress and anxiety for you and your child.
Grieving the loss of a loved one can feel especially heavy during the holiday season. There are ways to help children understand and cope with feelings of grief. Having an open dialogue about how the loss is affecting you, the family, and your child is important. This gives your child permission to talk with you about what they are experiencing and ask questions. However, children are still learning about emotions, so they might need examples of feelings vocabulary (e.g., sad, angry, guilty), as well as examples of how it might feel in their body (e.g., fatigue, racing heart, stomach ache, tight chest). Feelings charts are helpful to reference during these conversations. Some ways to cope might involve asking your child to make a special ornament, or contribute drawings, notes, or pictures to a memory box for your loved one.
Have your child join you in the spirit of giving by asking them to help with tasks and activities they enjoy. For example, your child might like to help you cook, decorate the house, or make cards. These activities can help your child build gratitude and self-esteem by doing things for other people, while feeling proud of what they accomplished. Research shows that gratitude is correlated with increased self-esteem and other mental health benefits. Plus, this is a great way to incorporate quality time during one of the busiest times of the year. Asking open-ended questions (e.g., “What do you like about the holidays?” “What do you wish you could change about the holidays?”), while working on a meaningful activity, is a great way to check-in with your child about what they are experiencing.
Third Culture Kids (TCKs), who moved with their families to a country other than their homeland, may experience some uncertainty around their personal identity. They absorb cultural values from their parents, while also trying to adapt to the norms and expectations of their new country. Holiday traditions provide a meaningful way to feel rooted in the original culture, as well as connect with the new. Some cross-cultural families opt to blend holiday traditions together; others create new ones. By celebrating these multicultural traditions, children can build a great sense of belonging in their new country, develop their own identity, and become more open-minded and compassionate toward the diverse backgrounds of their peers.
About the author
Mary is a school psychologist from the United States. She specializes in providing culturally sensitive psychoeducational and psychological evaluations for students with specific learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and emotional disabilities, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).