This time of year can be a challenging one for kids and parents- even on a more typical year than 2020. The challenges may be different this year but they are still in full effect. As parents, we want our kids to have memories filled with magic and joy, and love. Many times, those high expectations lead to stress, tension, and relational disconnect instead of dancing sugar plum fairies and enchanted warm fuzzies. Sometimes that anxiety and tension can even become toxic stress and the whole holiday season begins to feel traumatic and instead of looking forward to it with joyful anticipation, we can be filled with a sense of dread.
We have an opportunity this year to slow things down, try out new traditions, and remember how to have fun with our kids. As most families are limiting their gatherings and staying home more this year, we can embrace that things will look differently. Try to avoid the strife that comes with trying to match your usual holiday activities. It is important for adults to recognize and accept that this year will be different. It won’t be remembered for huge holiday gatherings and packed shopping malls but maybe it will be the year that your kids reminisce about cuddling up watching movies or baking cookies as a family.
I usually encourage families to focus on three main things: Preparation, Expectations, and Grace to start to reclaim their holiday spirit and these things are even more important now.
Preparation means we get intentional about prioritizing and planning. You can look for ways to change negative patterns and add in new ways of celebrating. Consider past years and what worked well and what didn’t. This can start with really thinking about what events/plans/traditions you can invest in this year. You may discover that you’ll uncover some great new traditions you can carry forward. One way I’ve done this in the past is to make it into a game with my kids where you say an event/activity you normally do and then take turns saying what you like about that event and what’s hard about that event. After everyone has a turn to explore their feelings, you should have a much more clear path to help you decide what to keep on your schedule. You can learn a lot about what challenges your family when you really listen to the answers they come up with. I have a friend who tried this and found out that it really stressed out one of her kids to wait for breakfast while their siblings opened their stockings. They had a super hard time regulating their emotions when they were hungry and so sitting still to calmly watch sibs get presents was a set up for disaster. Once the child had the opportunity to mention that struggle, it was easily handled by providing a favorite protein snack during stocking time.
This year, preparation also means figuring out how to connect with loved ones in nontraditional ways. For many people, our new found Zoom skills will come in handy for still being able to open presents together, light candles remotely, and sing rounds of carols. You may even want to record these moments so that your kids can watch them later. What a great opportunity to be able to remember those little (and not so little) voices in future years!
Preparation could also mean that you set yourself up for success by making a list of the things you and your kids need to be your best selves. Some common things are sleep, hydration, healthy foods, alone time, time outside, or whatever helps each individual feel better. We are all staying at home more this year but we can still get outside. A quick easy way to build some connection and playfulness into outdoor time is to do a scavenger hunt together. See who can find the most pinecones, jump in the most mud puddles or notice the most purple holiday lights. Incorporating self-care items into your gift-giving can also be a great way to encourage self-care during this challenging season. I know I love to get cozy blankets, warm slippers, and fun bath items and my kids do too.
Some families find that creating a visual cue for the holiday countdown with things like paper chains or advent calendars are helpful for increasing kids’ ability to patiently wait for big days. For others, that kind of visual reminder that something big is coming feels like torture… The bottom line is watch your kiddo, listen to your intuition, and do what feels right for your family.
Expectations: This is both about lowering our personal expectations and managing our kids’ sometimes unbearable anxiety about this season. It’s important that we remember that excitement and anxiety feel the same in the body… think about the signs of each… butterflies in your tummy, quickening heartbeat and breathing, trouble sleeping… for some people feeling excited like this can trigger memories of other times they’ve felt anxious and bring back really hard reminders of other challenging times. Some of the ways we can handle this are by being attuned and watchful of what is happening. Is your child asking lots of nonsense (things you’ve already answered 18 million times) questions, having trouble sleeping or eating, seem to have an unusual excess of energy or having a really hard time following instructions or complying with directions? These can all be signs of anxiety in children. Sometimes this requires that we get creative… I’ve known people who had a kiddo who was really worried they wouldn’t get the present they desperately wanted and couldn’t focus on anything else go shopping with them, pick it out and help hide it in the present spot. Yes, you don’t get the shocked look of surprise when they open their gift but you also don’t get the weeks of challenging behaviors due to the anxiety. Another family I know commonly does Surprise Christmas a week or two before when mom sees that her kids can’t handle the anticipation anymore. One morning, the kids just wake up and surprise it’s Christmas! Then they do relaxing activities like movie marathons or hiking on Christmas day.
Another fun way to prepare and manage expectations is to wrap up some silly items from around the house and each night, have everyone practice taking turns opening the gift, saying thank you, and finding something to say about the item. Make the items as goofy as possible in order to keep everyone relaxed and playful. For example, I might open a gift of a cheese grater and exclaim, “Wow! How did you know I love cheese?! Thank you!” I read a study recently that said that kids learn 400 times faster through playfulness than they do when we just lecture them.
If you have a kiddo that struggles behaviorally, their anxiety can be escalated by the additional focus on “being good because Santa is coming”. I know many families love having their personal elf and I’d encourage parents to keep this activity focused on reporting positive behavior instead of making it seem like a spy trying to catch every little mistake. I’ve known kids who are constantly worried that they aren’t being good enough which leads to a negative spiral of shame and then more difficult feelings and behaviors. This can sometimes be handled by letting the child have a tiny gift each day (mints, gum, playdough, encouraging notes etc). It can be helpful to get extended family and friends in on this too so that they don’t unintentionally sabotage all the work you are trying to do to help your child manage their big feelings/worries.
After you’ve worked on preparation and expectations, sometimes we just need to give ourselves and our kids a bit of Grace: It’s important to remember that our kids aren’t giving us a hard time, they are having a hard time. I find that looking at situations through that lens makes me want to get curious and try to figure out a way to meet the need under the behavior instead of punish my child for the behavior they are using to communicate what they need. It is absolutely okay to have big feelings (and for your kids to have big feelings) about the things that are different this year. Take some time to speak those things out loud. Dream about adding those special memories back into your holidays in the future and then transition into creating some new memories.