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The holidays look very different this year. Annual travel plans are on hold and families aren’t able to gather. School celebrations have been moved to Zoom. Gift budgets are tight or uncertain.
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All of these changes mean children will likely be dealing with feelings of frustration. Here are three tips to help parents guide children through tough emotions during the holidays.
1. Make space for big emotions
People who are able to precisely label their feelings have better emotional regulation than those who cannot. A rich emotional vocabulary helps children and adults alike manage complex and overwhelming feelings. From my work with adolescents, however, I can tell you most older children have a limited range of words to describe how they feel: happy, sad, and mad are about as far as many get.
No matter what age your children are, encourage them to name what they are feeling about this strange holiday season. Make space for big emotions and feelings — COVID has disrupted our lives tremendously, and children should know their feelings of frustration are valid. If possible, include some gentle prodding to help them arrive at the most specific words they can find.
For teens and tweens, a list of emotion words can help get their brains moving. For younger children, you may need to teach some new terms as you go. In either case, remember that the more feeling words they have, the more likely they are to manage these and other emotions in the future. Be sure to check out the “My Mood Tracker” printable in the 2021 New Year Kit PDF (ages 11+)!
For example, sadness about not getting to go to Grandma’s house might include feelings of longing to see relatives, or worry that it may be many months before the next visit. Anger about not getting to take the annual family vacation might be tangled up with jealousy about what other children are doing, or feelings of isolation from months of stay-at-home orders.
After you have talked through some of their feelings, encourage your child to write them down. Journaling is one of the best tools to help children process emotions, and I always found that giving students the time to write about their feelings made them calmer and more responsive to help from adults.
2. Focus on gratitude
After you and your child have named their BIG emotions about this holiday season, you can begin to move forward with finding alternative ways to feel. Gratitude is the best place to start.
Researchers have established a strong connection between gratitude and overall well-being. COVID stress is unlikely to vanish after the holidays, so focusing on gratitude can give your child resilience — not just for holiday disappointments, but also for the months ahead.
Start an evening gratitude ritual: At the dinner table, ask each family member to share one thing they are grateful for from the day. You can also ask each family member to make a holiday gratitude list, which you can display with other holiday decorations in your home. Some ideas might include the following:
I am grateful the four of us get to be together for the holiday.
I am grateful we will have good holiday food.
I am grateful that we will be able to exchange gifts.
I am grateful we are making new traditions this year.
I am grateful for the holiday break from work and school.
I am grateful that this will be a holiday we will never forget.
For older children, you can take on a social media gratitude challenge together. Search for hashtags like #100daysofgratitude or #gratitudechallenge, or make up your own rules. Right before the holiday, for example, post a picture of something you are grateful for each day for a week. Younger children without their own accounts can help, too; let them select pictures or brainstorm ideas for your posts.
3. Reframe your thinking
You have validated your child’s feelings of frustration and helped them consider what they have to be grateful for. Another tip for helping them cope is to teach them how to reframe seemingly negative circumstances.
Research shows that reframing your thinking may improve everything from cardiovascular health to dealing with stress. Like gratitude, focusing on reframing during the holidays is not a short-term solution — it will also help build your child’s resilience against challenges they face in the future.
Practice reframing together
You can help your child examine each big, overwhelming thought they have about the holiday season, and then reword it into something they can view in a better light. You might be able to take a setback and rearrange it into a challenge, or help her view difficulties as opportunities for growth. Here are a few examples:
Instead of: We can’t do any of the things we usually do this holiday.
Say: We are going to make new traditions this year.
Instead of: I am missing out on the trip I’ve been looking forward to all year.
Say: I am learning to be flexible.
Instead of: I hate not going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for our holiday meal.
Say: I will find other ways to connect with Grandma and Grandpa this year.
When you have gone through a few examples together, encourage this as another journal activity. Reread the list of reframed thoughts every night in the days leading up to the holiday. The more your child can remember to repeat their reframed thoughts to themselves, the more they will internalize the habit of looking on the bright side.
Spend quality time as a family
With the holidays significantly scaled down (reframe: less busy!) this year, you might take the opportunity to step back and reframe the season as a family. Instead of focusing on shopping and parties, return to the roots of your holiday. Spend some time reading, watching videos, or doing research about its origins. What is this holiday for? Where did it begin? Which traditions are modern, and which might be ancient?
Help your child seize the unique moment this year offers — fewer gifts and gatherings, but the chance to discover what the holidays are really about. Together you might even find new (or very old) rituals to make your celebration this year extra special.
Focus on giving, not getting
Another family reframe might be shifting from a season of receiving to a season of giving. Focus on what your family can give to others. Giving not only builds empathy for others, it also makes us feel great. Your child can make a difference and create brighter feelings around the holidays at the same time.
Consider making community service a new family tradition. Many food pantries and donation centers will be in extra need of volunteers this year, or you might “adopt” a child or family in need of gifts. Ask about service opportunities for the entire family. If you can’t find in-person ways to serve, decide where to make a donation together. No matter how you choose to serve, you are helping your child replace feelings of disappointment with satisfaction, empathy, and an overall better sense of self.
This isn’t the new normal
Finally, remember that even though the holidays with COVID are disappointing for all of us, this disruption is temporary. For one last reframing activity, present this year as a learning opportunity. Discuss with your children what lessons we might take with us when normal life resumes. What benefits are there to having a scaled-down holiday celebration? What new traditions might your family continue? Help children embrace changes as best they can, and know that although COVID is not forever, the skills they gain this season will help them navigate challenges for the rest of their lives.