By: Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations
The holidays can be a time of great joy, but they can also be a time of great stress. Celebrations and merriment can be contrasted with pressure to amaze, long to-do lists, financial constraints or reminders of those we have lost. For many, it is a time of mixed emotions or strong internal conflict about why they cannot feel happy during a season that practically dictates it.
Holiday blues have been felt my many people for a long time, but now during a global pandemic, those feelings may be amplified and more prevalent than previous years. Families are trying to provide children with a positive holiday experience during a time of high stress and significant restriction. Family gatherings and holiday traditions are being cancelled, and many families are mourning the loss of loved ones. Adults are not the only ones feeling increased stress as we enter the holiday season. Children likely feel excited about the holiday but sad about not seeing family, not having holiday parties in school, and not being able to attend their traditional holiday events. This holiday season is simply different in ways that can bring great strain.
So, what can we do as adults to emotionally support children this holiday season? Do we allow them to observe our stress or do we keep it to ourselves in an effort to provide them with the happy holiday season that they deserve?
In June 2018, I wrote a blog post titled: “The Struggle is Not only Real, It is Necessary,” which discusses the importance of embracing uncomfortable, unwanted emotions as being necessary for personal growth and resiliency. By acknowledging, accepting and using unwanted feelings in a functional manner, we teach children to be competent and confident in their ability to navigate a stressful world. Of course, when I wrote the article, I could not have imagined the extent or duration of stress or discomfort that we would be facing in 2020. But does that change anything?
To put it simply, no, not really. Entering into the holidays with the expectation that we can protect our children from life’s stress is unrealistic. Attempting to do so will only add pressure while ignoring the mixed emotions that children are likely feeling as well. During this emotionally high-stakes time, acceptance of the struggles we face is even more critical. Adults and children both need “permission” to feel sad, frustrated, lonely or scared while also still allowing themselves to feel excited, thankful, and, yes, even joyful.
Here are some suggestions for how to help your family navigate the holiday blues this unique holiday season:
- Talk about your feelings – wanted and unwanted ones – throughout the day, modeling and encouraging regular emotional discourse (e.g. “I love giving gifts, but getting all the shopping done is kind of stressful.”).
- Help children label and interpret the emotions they may be having, as they may not have the right words or language for expressing them (e.g. “It sounds like you’re really disappointed we can’t go to Grandma’s house.”).
- Be careful to not accidentally dismiss children’s feelings (e.g. “No need to be sad; we will find another fun way to celebrate.”), instead reflecting their emotion (e.g. “I know you’re sad that we can’t have a holiday party; I am, too.”).
- Normalize the experience of mixed emotions (e.g. It’s okay to be excited for children while also feeling sad that we won’t see our family.).
- Find new, safe holiday activities or events (e.g. holiday light drive, virtual gift exchange, etc.) and adapt previous traditions when able (e.g. virtual family gatherings).
- Don’t romanticize the traditions that were lost this year (e.g. avoid such things as, “Our parties were always the most magical part of the holiday.”).
- Help children understand new holiday plans as an opportunity to “celebrate” or “experience” the holiday, but be careful to not impose emotional expectations (e.g. “Enjoy the holidays!”) that can add pressure.
- Reassure children that these changes are temporary, and traditions and visits will continue when it is safe to do so.
About the Author
Dr. Angela Currie is a pediatric neuropsychologist at NESCA. She conducts neuropsychological and psychological evaluations out of our Londonderry, NH office. She specializes in the evaluation of anxious children and teens, working to tease apart the various factors lending to their stress, such as underlying learning, attentional, or emotional challenges. She particularly enjoys working with the seemingly “unmotivated” child, as well as children who have “flown under the radar” for years due to their desire to succeed.
To book an evaluation with Dr. Currie or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician in the referral line.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (603) 818-8526.