Four Tips for Helping Children Manage Holiday StressDecember 1, 2022
Celebrating the holidays with family and friends typically offers predictability and
comfort in routines and traditions that are carried on from year to year, if not from
generation to generation. When those traditions are disrupted, children may feel especially
sad or confused, making it even more important for their parents or caregivers to
clearly communicate why and how traditions may be altered.
Jessica Glass Kendorski, PhD, chair of the Department of School Psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM), said some families may have
been engaging in traditions on autopilot before the COVID-19 pandemic significantly
disrupted or completely halted holiday gatherings. In the past year or two, as families
evolve to a new normal, Kendorski said it’s natural to reassess holiday traditions,
whether that’s due to infection prevention—perhaps less of a concern now but still
very real—or because the way things used to be done, such as a cross-country trip
to see relatives for a short time, may no longer feel worth it for a variety of reasons.
Other major life events, such as a loss in the family, divorce, or a serious illness,
can also impact traditions.
How to Help Children Manage Holiday Stress
Here are Kendorski’s top tips to help children navigate changes in decision-making
when it comes to holiday traditions.
Determine what’s negotiable and what’s not
Knowing where your boundary lines are is a key first step in determining how or why
traditions may be altered. What lines aren’t you going to cross, and what values led
you to that decision? Figure out what lines you aren’t going to cross, and be prepared
to hold to them.
Anticipate that someone may get upset
When making a decision that will lead to the alteration or disruption of a holiday
tradition, anticipate that someone may get upset with you. Kendorski says we often
don’t draw or keep social boundaries because we don’t want our family or friends to
be mad, but if you muster the courage to make a decision that will alter a holiday
tradition—and are prepared to stick to it—also make sure you’re able to do so in the
face of negative feedback or high emotions.
Try to be flexible in other ways
So, you’ve held to your boundaries and braced for blowback. Now, it’s time to think
about how to be flexible in other ways to promote some degree of compromise. First,
determine what the goals are for a particular tradition or get-together. For example,
if grandma only gets to see the grandkids once or twice a year—but you no longer want
to gather with the full family—offer to visit a few weeks later.
Communicate openly—and early
Give your child or children advance notice of how or why you’re thinking about adjusting
a holiday tradition. Children seek predictability, Kendorski says, so if key routines
are going to be altered, give direct, advance notice about what you’re thinking about,
why something new is being suggested or implemented, what’s behind that decision,
and the proposed alternative.
You can also describe how you—and grandma, to cite an earlier example—might feel about
the decision. Outlining those feelings is important, as children are likely to know,
or at least sense, if there’s familial conflict related to the decision. And your
children might be upset too. Kendorski advises against trying to “fix” their feelings.
Rather, empathize and validate, and allow them time to sit with the decision. Hopefully,
once they process the information and their feelings, they can get excited about starting
a new tradition this year.
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