Supporting Kids’ Mental Health this Holiday Season

There’s no question that the way we typically celebrate at this time of year will look very different. To make the most of the coming months, clinician Dena Kohleriter offers three tips that can help support children’s mental health as we navigate this time. 

By Dena Kohleriter, LCSW Licensed Clinician | Nov 20, 2020
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This year’s holiday season will be a lesson in creativity. Many of our long-standing traditions have been flipped on their heads – no holiday parties, big events, or extended family visits. There’s no question that the way we typically celebrate at this time of year will look very different.

Change can be hard for children – and adults – so to make the most of the coming months, I’d like to offer three tips that can help support children’s mental health as we navigate this time.

1. Focus on the Possibilities

This year, we are not able to spend holidays the way we typically do. And this can come with a sense of grief and loss, rightfully so. It’s important to be honest with children and acknowledge the sadness they may be feeling about the circumstances. But if we’re not careful, we can focus so much on what we’re missing out on, that children might spiral into a depression. When acknowledging all that is lost, it’s important to acknowledge the possibilities. For many families, including my own, this is the first year that we can make the holiday seasons whatever we want them to be. We don’t have to follow the rules we always do, because why should we?

This year, my household and I decided that we don’t really care for turkey that much. So instead of making turkey simply because it’s Thanksgiving, we decided to make a meal with a theme – foods we are thankful for. I’m still not entirely sure what we’ll be eating, but I know there will be more pies than people!

My daughter was sad recently because this year she won’t be able to host her traditional holiday party for her friends. We acknowledged that it was sad, discussed that we’d have it again when it is safe, and quickly got to work re-imagining a new idea for this year.

Without the constraints of the typical holidays, how can we be creative about them? It’s a great opportunity to keep what we love and change what we don’t.

2. Remember the Meaning Behind the Season

It’s so easy to get swept up in the rush of the holidays that we begin to focus on gift ideas, shopping lists and holiday schedules. This is another great time to stop and re-calibrate around what’s really important.

At the start of our quarantine, my daughter and I brainstormed ways to leave joy for people without interacting, and decided to leave chalk messages for our neighbors in their driveways. Over Halloween, when we realized we wouldn’t be trick-or-treating, many in our neighborhood started leaving “boo bags”, little gift bags of candy, on porches. Kids get so much joy out of doing for others. And while we can’t do some of the traditional acts of service this year, such as serving meals or visiting people, we can be creative about finding ways to give back. It might be leaving cookies on people’s doors, paying for someone’s Thanksgiving dinner, or dropping notes in people’s mailboxes.

In my professional role as a social worker, I deal with issues related to bullying and other social issues. One of the biggest pieces of advice I give for children struggling with bullying is to do good for others. There is something very powerful about pulling up and realizing the world is bigger than our little circle. Truly nothing can get us out of our own misery faster and better than doing a kindness for someone else.

3. Manage Stress and Anxiety

Even with these tips, we have to acknowledge that children – and the adults in their lives – will likely struggle with stress and anxiety in the coming months. So how do we manage anxiety that may manifest?

First, deal in honesty. I firmly believe that it is important to be honest with children. If you know they won’t be making their annual trip to visit Grandma, don’t say, “We’ll see!” Be honest and let them know that it’s not happening this year, and allow them to work through their feelings.

You know that sense of relief you get when you talk through a challenge with another parent who helps you brainstorm around solutions? You can get that same relief from discussing with your children. Parents carry so much weight on their shoulders, and may be surprised to see how much easier it is to loop children in, be honest, and then brainstorm together about what the coming months might look like. This simple tasks eases stress on the parent and lessens anxiety on the children who feel included in the process.

Remain calm. If a child is having a meltdown and the parent joins in, it will only accelerate. A parent must try their hardest to remain calm during times of high emotions for children to create space for their feelings. No one is perfect and this is easier said than done, but finding ways to manage your own stress will help make sure you can stay calm even when your child is struggling.

Create predictability. An unpredictable world can be scary for children. You may find that when everything is up in the air, routines fall apart, and behavior issues bubble up. It’s important to set up conditions for good behavior by having a sense of predictability even when everything is different. This might mean telling kids a detailed schedule about the following day, posting a family calendar, or keeping certain daily routines unchanged.

 

Under the best of circumstances, holidays can be a time of stress. And this year is not the best of circumstances. So if you or your child are struggling with depression that seems to be persistent or severe, please reach out to a mental health professional.

I hope these tips help us all have a safe and joyful holiday season, and I look forward to seeing what we carry with us into future years.