Start the conversation early to prevent major disappointment in the long run.

By Blythe Copeland
October 22, 2020
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family celebrating the holidays
Credit: Getty / LOUISE BEAUMONT

In a typical year, most kids' holiday questions are easy to answer—"Yes, you can have another cookie. No, I don't know if Grandma will get you a video game." But this year, as social distancing guidelines force changes to—or cancellations of—many traditions, from caroling and parades to long-distance travel and parties with extended family, parents may find themselves having slightly more difficult conversations with their children.

"This year's holiday season will certainly feel different, but our children can pick up on our cues," says Dr. Amna Husain, founder of Pure Direct Pediatrics. "Reassure children that they are safe and let them know it is okay if they feel upset. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from you. As a parent, recognize that this is a difficult year—don't feel overwhelmed to continue making it the perfect holiday that existed before COVID precautions." Here, more ways to talk to your children about the atypical holiday season ahead.

Follow your child's cues.

Like adults, every child processes change differently, so there's no "perfect" time to mention the way your holidays might be altered this year. "I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all response," says Heather Bernstein, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute. Some kids might start asking about their favorite holiday traditions—like their annual sleepover with their cousins or a December trip to the ballet—before you even put their Halloween costumes away, while others might not realize until after Thanksgiving that you missed your town's parade. "Follow the cues from your child to indicate their readiness," she says.

Tell the truth.

When kids do start asking questions, be straightforward about firm plans, but don't feel you have to have all the answers at once. "If you have concrete data—if you know their grandparents always travel to you and you know that's not going to happen, for example—that would be pretty appropriate to share, because that's not going to change," says Bernstein. "But a lot of what's happening three months from now, even as adults, we don't really know what that's going to look like."

Be willing to talk.

No one likes to share bad news, but you shouldn't dodge your child's questions to spare their feelings. "You don't really need to know everything, but displaying to your kid that you want to have the conversation whenever they want to have it and being open is the most important thing," says Bernstein. This is especially true for anxious kids who need more time to adjust to changes in their routine. "Avoiding the reality can produce a lot more anxiety for the kid. If you're not talking about it, it's scarier," she adds.

Find a time when you can both focus.

Choosing the right time for a tough conversation is important no matter the topic. If your kid has trouble sitting still, says Bernstein, then chatting on a walk or during a bike ride might help them focus; if they like to throw hard questions at you just before bedtime, consider whether they'll be able to process their emotions without a meltdown. "Match the conversation to a time when your kid is the most receptive," offers Bernstein. The same holds true for the parent: "Do it at a time when you can be open and receptive, because if you genuinely feel that way, your body language, your tone, and your facial expression are all going to accurately communicate that."

Let it get emotional.

Even though you may be sharing bad news, you're not trying to stop your kids from feeling disappointed, sad, or mad—you're trying to help them deal with all of those feelings. "It's not that we don't want kids to experience negative emotions," says Bernstein, "it's that we want them to experience it and process it in a healthy way." This means you don't have to hide your own disappointment, either. "We can model for our kids that we also might be sad and that we also grieve parts of the things that aren't the same, but we are going to find ways to make it something new and special," says Bernstein.

Keep it positive.

While it's tempting to mitigate a conversation about what you can't do with big ideas about what you can do, instead, be careful to make only promises you can keep. "It's totally reasonable and fair to find something else about it that could be really positive and really wonderful," says Bernstein. "But I wouldn't promise that they get to stay up all night and eat cookies if that's not actually what you're going to offer." Letting the kids come up with some new traditions—like having a Zoom singalong with their cousins, sending handmade gifts to their grandparents, or decorating their bedrooms—can also give them an essential sense of control. "Nobody can control what's going on in the world, but you can control your emotions and how you problem-solve," says Bernstein. "The solutions you might come up with could turn out to be really amazing, fun traditions you carry on into the future."

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