Four Tips for Helping Children Manage Holiday Stress
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Four Tips for Helping Children Manage Holiday Stress

December 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

A sad-looking female child experiencing holiday stress is comforted by an adult female.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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