Supporting Your Family’s Emotional Wellbeing Throughout the Holidays
The holidays are a time of excitement, but the changes in routine, high expectations and memories can bring up feelings of sadness, overwhelm or disappointment. The good news is that families can go into the holiday season prepared. Joy Mapes, a Community-Based Services Therapist I for Great Circle, shares practical advice to help cope with what might come up during this season and find opportunities to connect and strengthen your relationships.
It’s natural to hope for an enjoyable holiday season, but sometimes our expectations can get carried away. “Our hearts get set on ‘perfect’ or ‘best,’ and both kids and adults can get disappointed,” Mapes says. Many parents and caregivers want to bring holiday magic to their kiddos, but true magic comes from spending quality time as a family, not from having a gourmet dinner and Pinterest-worthy decorations. Keeping your expectations in check will make the season easier on you, in addition to modeling that for your children.
Talking openly with your children can help them get an idea of what the holidays will look like this year. If you’re worried your child might have high expectations, it’s helpful to address them ahead of time. “If your kid has a long wish list, you can talk about how many presents or what kinds of presents they may get,” Mapes explains. “It’s okay to come right out and say, Mom/Dad/Santa can’t get a PS5 this year. Is there something else that you’d like?”
Open Communication & Validating Emotions
Children who have experienced stressful or difficult holidays in the past might be more on edge as the season approaches. “Kids may not have clear memories of previous holidays, but their brains and bodies can still unconsciously associate the signs of the season with danger,” Mapes says. If you notice shifts from their normal temperament, it might be time to check-in.
Asking kids how they feel about specific situations like school activities, shopping, decorating, travel and such, allows kids to reflect on their emotions and can give you more insight into what they might need to feel supported. Uncharacteristic behaviors are usually a way for kids to communicate an unmet need. For example, a child that’s typically talkative shutting down during a holiday party might be a sign that they need more breaks or some one-on-one time with a parent or caregiver.
If your child is experiencing challenging emotions, one of the best things you can do is validate them. Feeling misunderstood or dismissed by a caregiver on top of their overwhelm, sadness, or anger can make it more difficult for them to move through their emotions and accept things as they are.
Even if it’s something seemingly small, like your kid having a meltdown about not wanting to eat the dinner your family prepared, you can support them by asking them how they feel and showing them you’re listening.
Coping with Family Separation
It can be a real source of pain if kids are not able to spend time with certain family members or friends during the holidays. Children in foster care or those who have beloved relatives who might not be able to make it home for the holidays might be grieving the loss of quality time and connection.
“Validate your kids’ feelings and the relationship with their person by asking if they’d like to do something to honor that loved one,” Mapes says. You can ask if your kiddo would like to make their person a holiday card or drawing or put up a special decoration in honor of their loved one. It can also be helpful to talk to your kid about their person. “Ask them their favorite memory or what they like best about their loved one,” she says.
You can also try to give them opportunities to donate gifts or lend a helping hand. “While they miss their loved one, they can show kindness to another person someone else may be missing,” says Mapes. Volunteering or other acts of kindness might help your kiddo feel more connected and purposeful during this challenging time.
Easing Changes in Routine
Routine is often important for kids with sensory issues, mental health challenges, and kids who have experienced trauma. The holiday season tends to bring some unavoidable shake-ups in routine, like breaks from school, travel and other holiday activities. To ease these changes, keep your kid informed of the upcoming changes, explain to them when and where their schedule will be different, for some kids it can be helpful to see this on a calendar as a visual aid. “If you have some flexibility in your routine, ask them what they’d like to do – asking kids for their input can give them a sense of control and investment,” Mapes says.
Try to find some areas in your family’s routine that you can keep consistent. “Make sure to eat together as a family at least once a day, or do the same bedtime routine, like brushing teeth, changing into pajamas, reading a story,” Mapes says. “The more about the schedule that can stay predictable, the more kids may be able to tolerate changes.”
Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself
Parents who prioritize their own emotional regulation and self-care are setting a good example for their kiddos and are better equipped to support their families. The holidays can bring up a lot of emotion in adults especially if they have a complicated or negative history with holidays. Being mindful of your own stressors, knowing what your needs are, and asking friends and family members for their support all make a huge difference.
There will be plenty of aspects that are out of your control, Mapes says. “You can put a ton of effort into the holiday experience, and kids will still complain about the food, get annoyed with their siblings, say they’re bored, and miss people who can’t be around,” she says. This can be nearly impossible not to take personally or feel hurt.
In these moments, self-compassion is key to regulating. “It’s okay to feel annoyed, disappointed, upset, grossed out, hyper, tired, and overwhelmed. Try to check in with yourself regularly to see how you’re feeling and take breaks when you can, even if the only chance you get for self-care is to play YOUR music in the car while driving everyone here and there,” advises Mapes. “The only way you’ll be able to deal with your kids’ responses with love and understanding is by giving yourself the same love and understanding.”
Finding Meaning & Joy
There might be some complicated emotions to work through, but the holidays also usually offer opportunities for connection and quality time. Breaks from work and school give you time to get to know your kiddo better. “Whether you’re grocery shopping with your kids or taking them to look at Christmas lights, take time to talk to your kids. Ask them something about themselves or the activity like, ‘Which color lights do you like the best?’ Asking for your kids’ opinions is a way to show them they’re an important part of what’s happening,” Mapes says.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed but you can also intentionally create moments of calm, like showing your kid a family recipe, watching a movie, or just relaxing by the fire. “What builds the connection is showing your kids that you enjoy being with them,” she says.