Across the country, families are finding the normally jolly holiday season feels anywhere from boring to a bummer, with parties, large shared meals, travel and busy religious services off the table because of coronavirus risks. Gone for many is the chance to sit on Santa’s lap, bake with grandparents and take part in a variety of other beloved traditions that have been canceled amid a surge in virus cases across the country. As if parenting during a pandemic weren’t already hard enough, now you can add in the pressure that comes with managing the loss of these treasured traditions.
“My heart physically hurts when I think about it,” says Darien Grover, a military mom of three whose family was transferred to Colorado before the pandemic. “It’s hard being heartbroken yourself and still staying strong for your kids, because they are the ones needing the strength and understanding right now. It hurts, because I know my parents are struggling not seeing their grandchildren, and my kids miss them terribly. So do I. It all around stinks. I have actually never felt that ‘mom guilt’ as fiercely as I do now — like I am the one failing all of them. It’s a horrible feeling.”
Khadijah Booth Watkins, a psychiatrist and associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, says this is a tough time for many families. “A lot of kids are feeling definitely incredible sadness and grief because of all of the losses,” Booth Watkins says. “It is just one more disappointment at the end of a long year of disappointments that’s been pretty tumultuous.”
Even so, Jessica Borelli, an associate professor of psychological science at the University of California at Irvine, urges parents not to feel as if they have to overdo it.
“So much is falling on families, and it is asking a lot of parents to make the holidays special and compensate for all the things kids normally get and look forward to,” she says. “. . . So I would recommend they just do what feels manageable and not stretch themselves too thin, because I think we are already stretching a lot as parents.”
If you’re looking for ideas to help your children manage their holiday expectations amid so much loss and change, here are a few.
Assess your family’s feelings
The first thing to do, experts say, is figure out whether your children really are sad, disappointed, mad or bored — or whether you’re the one feeling that way. “I would encourage parents to consider whether it’s really about their own disappointment at this time or their kids’,” says Tory Joseph, a licensed therapist, parenting coach and parenting educator in D.C.
Booth Watkins agrees. “A lot of kids will suffer in silence if they’re worried about upsetting their parents,” she says, so if you’re the one with holiday anxieties or disappointments, those need to be managed first, she says. “What’s most important is kids need to know that their parents or caregivers have it together, and they need to know that whatever they present to us, in terms of their feelings, that we can tolerate and handle it and it’s not going to break us.”
That doesn’t mean pushing your feelings away. Discuss your frustrations with other adults or mental health professionals if necessary, so you can give your children the reassurance, stability and structure they’re looking for.
After that, ask your kids how they’re feeling. Give them space to have their disappointment and frustration, and empathize with that before you try to encourage them through it. “The biggest and the best thing you can do is listen to your kids and listen to what they tell you in terms of their feelings and emotions, and partner with them about how you want this holiday to look,” Booth Watkins says. “Kids will usually tell you what it is they want and what they feel.”
Involve kids in the brainstorming
Experts stress that raising adults is not about making sure that our kids are happy or entertained all the time. So if your children say they’re bored, challenge them to come up with a list of activities for themselves and the family.
“Kids come up with things. We just often don’t ask them, or we don’t give them the opportunity,” Joseph says. “The greatest need for kids is to feel like they belong, are connected and are part of something, so I think this gives us an opportunity to get kids involved in coming up with creative solutions.”
If they’re missing their grandparents, let them suggest ways to connect virtually. If they’ve adapted well to video chat, cooking, baking, caroling and reading bedtime stories are all activities that can transition well to being done virtually.
If they are sad to miss your community’s annual holiday 5K, figure out a way to do your own family 5K. Missing out on the church Christmas pageant? How about sending scripts to a few families, assigning roles and doing an impromptu one over Zoom? Sad they can’t decorate gingerbread houses or do holiday crafts with friends and family? Consider having two families buy the same supplies, and make crafts together over video chat — or set up separate tables outside and do it in a socially distant way while wearing masks.
When you can’t creatively re-create something — such as sitting on Santa’s lap — talk about what it was like and what you loved about it. “It’s a good opportunity to just talk about how that would have felt or how much they’re going to love doing that the next time they get to,” Joseph says. “Don’t be afraid of the hard emotions.”
And don’t forget to tell your kids how proud you are of them. Be specific, and point out how they’re adapting well and coming up with their own creative or thoughtful ideas.
Move the focus away from gifts
Many children will probably experience change when it comes to receiving presents, whether that’s because of job losses or not being near extended family. Borelli says the key is telling kids ahead of time, so they can scale their expectations.
Parents may want to tell teenagers directly that the family will need to be more mindful of expenses, but with younger kids, she suggests explaining that you want to have a different gift-giving strategy this year of giving fewer gifts that are more special. Decorate the gifts with wrapping paper and lots of bows and tinsel, or hide small gifts in multiple wrapped boxes inside of each other. Another way to add fun: Hide gifts around the home and create a scavenger hunt for them. If need be, eschew gift-giving altogether in favor of spending available funds on a family activity or socially distant, outdoor outing that may help mask the fact that you have less money to spend.
Borelli also stresses that gifts don’t have to be new to be special. Older siblings can give younger siblings a toy they have outgrown. Parents can also give a child something they used to play with when they were young or something the child covets but is rarely allowed to touch, such as a mother’s old purse, makeup or old cellphone to do pretend play with.
Regardless of your family’s financial situation, it can help to focus on what you can still do for others. Write letters or cards and send them to friends, relatives or people in nursing homes. Paint rocks and leave them for neighbors. Call friends and family who live alone. Teach your kids to think about how others are feeling this holiday season and what they can do to spread some cheer.
Because McGarry’s family of 50 can’t gather this year, they’ve organized a giving chart to create 12 days of Christmas for a relative in an assisted-living facility, and her kids will help plan their family’s day.
Right now, you probably can’t give your children exactly what they want — for financial, health or other reasons — but there are ways to make new memories and find new meaning in the season. But Borelli stresses that creativity comes in many forms and urges parents not to put undue pressure on themselves to do what others are doing.
Instead of worrying about the whole holiday season, Borelli says, look at how you can create small, special moments with your children. She suggests finding little doses of distraction-free time where you can be totally focused on them and something they enjoy — whether that’s play, deep conversation, crafts, cuddling or an outing.
Then, she says — for an added bit of parenting magic — label the moment out loud as “special.”
“Figure out what feels like a moment of positive interaction with your child, and capitalize on it. Actually say to your child: ‘This is a special moment we are having,’ or, ‘I’m excited that we get to have this moment,’ or, ‘How wonderful that we get to do this special thing together,’ ” Borelli suggests. “Labeling the special moment you are having with them promotes a mindfulness and awareness among kids, helping them realize: ‘Oh, in this moment, I am with my parents and having a really good time.’ ”
Something most families can do, Borelli says, is think about what’s only possible this year — especially if it feels a little audacious or wacky to your children — such as eating breakfast all day or decorating one whole room with candy and then eating it all. She says she and her husband follow two different religions, so in their house, they are talking about finally having the “Jewish Christmas” they’ve never been able to do, because they’re always visiting family. Because they can’t head out to a Chinese restaurant and movie theater, their vision involves ordering Chinese food for dinner and watching movies all day in their pajamas.
“Talk it up as special fun that comes from breaking the rules of the holiday in a silly way,” Borelli says.
In the end, Booth Watkins says you need to remember that even though you don’t feel as if you can control much in a global pandemic, the truth is that you absolutely can control the memories your children have when they look back on this time.
“It’s an opportunity to focus on those positives as opposed to the negatives and find that silver lining,” Booth Watkins says. “They’ll remember how we as caregivers made them feel safe. They’ll build some resilience, and they’ll build up their muscle for knowing that things don’t have to look exactly the same way that they used to for us to still be able to enjoy ourselves.”
Jennifer Davis is a D.C.-based journalist, writer and video producer. Connect with her on Twitter @JenniferDavisDC.