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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rachel Kramer

November 16: Thinking Ahead to the Holidays

In the lead up to Thanksgiving I thought I would share some thoughts about pandemic parenting during the holiday season. At the outset I want to acknowledge that this is a really hard topic. For almost all families, holiday celebrations will not be the same as previous years, and most parents I speak with are feeling sadness, disappointment, and/or trepidation about what the holiday season will bring. I think an important place to start is to allow ample time to grieve the important rituals that will not be able to happen this year: relatives or friends you won’t be able to see in person and time-honored traditions that won’t take place, whether it’s running your local turkey trot or participating in a holiday neighborhood potluck. I can’t stress enough how important it is to really allow yourself time to process and grieve these disappointments and losses.

Since many holiday traditions involve extended family members, if you haven’t already done so, now is the time to reach out and have conversations with relatives about what is within your family’s comfort zone this year. If you are parenting with a partner, be sure you begin by deciding together what feels comfortable so that you have a framework for conversations with extended family members. Some conversations with relatives may be painful or conflict-laden as people have different ideas about health and safety, different levels of vulnerability, and different ideas about what feels risky or dangerous. It’s important to keep in mind that all you can do is do your best. Your decision-making needs to be guided by prioritizing the physical health and mental well-being of you and your family as well as considering how your actions will impact your larger community.

Once you have addressed these challenging issues, give some thought to your family’s holiday traditions: what are they? Why are they important? Will they be able to happen in the context of the pandemic? Consider what you will be able to do this holiday season:

  • Do you have ideas for a new tradition – one which works within the constraints of the pandemic but might fill the same goals or needs as a much-loved tradition you have to forgo this year?

  • Are there ways to connect with people you won’t see in person – make cards or letter, or send videos?

  • How will you balance sadness and grief about what won’t or can’t happen with resilience and hope directed at making some new plans for this year?

  • For example, if you always do a Yankee Swap with extended family, instead this year can you plan a Secret Snowflake activity with just the members of your household?

  • If Auntie Judy can’t come for Thanksgiving with her famous sweet potatoes, can you get the recipe and set up a Zoom call to make them along with her? Alternatively, can you do some research and try a totally new recipe?

  • Developing new traditions will involve some creative thinking – remember the balance of acknowledging the sadness about what can’t happen and making a positive plan about what can happen.

Once you know your plan, think about how you will communicate with your children about what will be the same this year and what will be different, allowing ample time for children to feel their feelings of sadness or disappointment. You can model putting feelings into words by either asking a question or making an observation

  • I wonder if you’re feeling sad that we won’t be having a cousins sleepover on Thanksgiving?

  • You have a lot of questions about if our celebration will still be fun this year – sounds like you’re worried about that.

Allow your child some time to sit with the difficult feelings in a safe way - we want to give children the space to feel a negative emotion and use words to talk through their negative emotions. It may be painful to hear your child expressing feelings of sadness or grief about topics that you are struggling with, as well. Keep in mind that learning to cope with challenging emotions is a life skill that your child is developing – one that can be carried forward to deal with any future disappointments, and that these difficult experiences are also helping children develop empathy and build resilience. After allowing some time for the negative feelings, make a plan about an activity that will help your child (and you) feel better – perhaps cuddling with a favorite toy, listening to an audiobook or podcast, getting outside, going for a walk or run, taking a bath, playing music, video chatting with a friend, writing in a journal, or doing an art project. Ultimately, we want to present a message of hope and optimism and to emphasize that we will get through this difficult time together.

In closing, I want to share a family Thanksgiving tradition that you might want to consider adopting this year. Since my children were very small, on Thanksgiving morning I give each family member a pile of paper strips and we write one thing we are thankful for on each strip. Each person can use as many strips as they want, and when everyone is finished the children tape the strips together to form a Thanksgiving paper chain that we use to decorate the room where we’re having dinner. I realize this isn’t the most environmentally friendly project, but you can easily re-use scrap paper. Particularly in years when our family has faced challenging or painful times I have found that there is something very powerful about being able to look over at the paper chain and exclaim over how many things our family is grateful for this year.

I wish you and your family a peaceful and healthy Thanksgiving.

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