Holidays and COVID-19: How to help kids grieve loss and find joy in an unusual season

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How to help kids grieve loss and find joy in an unusual holiday season

How to help kids grieve loss and find joy in an unusual holiday season

This year has been defined by a pervasive sense of loss due to COVID. Events and vacations were cancelled. Schools and businesses shuttered. We’ve been separated from our loved ones, and in some cases, had to say goodbye to them. Now we have to figure out how to celebrate the winter holidays during a pandemic.

Whether your holiday festivities are minimally changed or completely upended, it may be especially difficult for kids to cope with a loss of normality — especially after months of disrupted schooling. As your family approaches this unusual holiday season, consider these tips from experts and parents on how to prepare for these challenges and help your kids cope and find some joy.

Look for signs of struggle

“Children process emotions differently than adults, so what stress and anxiety and depression looks like in kids often looks different in adults,” says Dr. Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in Denver who specializes in working with kids with behavioral challenges.

Here are some things to watch for in kids and teens:

  • Emotional meltdowns. Children might cry or have emotional outbursts out of nowhere over seemingly small things, Nunez says. “You may see them lashing out or having behavioral tantrums like falling on the floor, kicking, screaming and crying.”

  • Complaints of physical aches and pains. Kids in emotional distress may complain of physical ailments, Nunez says, such as a headache, stomachache or lack of appetite.

  • Sleep troubles. Additionally, they may have changes in sleep patterns. “Maybe kids are having trouble going to sleep or waking up in the middle of the night, saying that they’re having nightmares or night terrors,” Nunez says.

  • More subtle mood or behavior shifts in teens. “With teenagers, it’s a little tricky,” says Kari Kampkis, a parenting author, speaker and mother of four girls, based in Birmingham, Alabama, “since they’re sometimes just in a bad mood for no reason. But as parents, we know what’s normal and not normal for our child, so we should really pay attention.” This could look like acting more withdrawn or quiet than usual, says Kampkis. It could also manifest as irritability, anger and lashing out. “Sometimes the emotions that come out frustrate us the most, but it’s really sadness underneath,” she explains.

Create space for emotions

While it’s certainly important to make sure your kids are eating healthy and getting physical activity, Nunez says, it’s critical to also nurture their mental and emotional health. “Right now, everything is unpredictable, and each month is looking different,” she says. Even if they don’t think so, kids thrive on predictability, she says, so they may need some extra TLC as this unusual holiday season approaches.

If your child is having a hard time, Nunez encourages approaching with compassion. “It’s really important during this time to not become frustrated but to remain calm,” she says, “and have open and honest conversations about why the child feels emotional or is acting out.”

Children look to you for direction and leadership, Nunez says. “If you’re not allowing your child to express themselves and go through these emotions,” Nunez explains, “then you’re kind of stunting their emotional growth.”

When your tween or teen lashes out, it’s easy to lash back, Kampkis says, but that just escalates the situation. Instead, she encourages, let your kids feel their feelings and give them space to be sad, grieve and talk it out.

“We need to not take it personally and be sensitive: they’ve had a really stressful year and abnormal school year,” Kampkis says. “As parents, we have to constantly ask ourselves, how can I be a source of strength and calm for them and help them process their feelings without me being their punching bag?”

Stay honest but positive

Moms and dads are struggling too, but we can still help create an atmosphere of resilience and positivity. “We set the tone in our home, and the way we approach it can really create the climate that our family feeds off,” Kampkis says.

This doesn’t mean always being a Pollyanna, she says, but instead “go into it with the attitude that this is not an ideal situation, but we’re going to make it work.” Kampkis suggests trying to adopt a positive approach: “We’re going to be grateful for this year and thankful our family is together, whatever that looks like.”

Alyson Phillips is a mom of two young girls in San Clemente, California, and her eldest is already expressing concern about the holidays. She asked if Santa will still come, if he’s allowed to bring presents and if he has to wear a mask, Phillips says.

“We talked with her and stated Santa will absolutely visit all the good girls and boys, and we made a joke about a mask being big enough to cover his beard,” she says. Her daughter also asked if she could see her cousins and grandparents, and Phillips said this was harder to answer since her family is still unsure if this will be possible for multiple reasons.

“We told her no matter what we will have a great holiday with baking, watching movies and putting up decorations,” Phillips says. “We assured her that no matter what we will have fun.”

Nancy Jamieson, a mom of four living in Yuma, Arizona, says she’s also found it works to have an attitude of being realistic but positive. She’s an active-duty Marine, and her husband works for the military and is away for long stretches, so they’re used to change — but not this much.

Jamieson’s children have asked many times why they can’t do certain things, or why their dad may not be home for Christmas. She doesn’t hide the truth; she explains the virus situation candidly, and she doesn’t make promises she can’t keep. “What I can do is reassure them that everything will be fine and I’m going to make it special for them.”

Her family typically visits out-of-town relatives during the winter holidays, so their home isn’t usually decorated. But this year, due to the pandemic, they likely can’t make the trip, and her husband may not make it home. Jamieson has decided to go all-out on decorating the house to make it feel special and give the kids something positive to focus on.

Plan safe holiday activities to look forward to

Now is the time for parents to become very creative and resourceful, Nunez says. Maybe this year a Santa photo is off the table, so it’s helpful to come up with new routines, Nunez says.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Engage kids in holiday planning and fun. Nunez suggests engaging kids in making and putting up holiday decorations, brainstorming gift ideas, doing holiday crafts, and making and sending holiday cards. Kampkis suggests having a pajama dance party or silly game night. Her family has a karaoke machine that provides endless hours of fun. You could even go caroling, she says, since it can be outdoors and socially distanced. Find activities that help you bond and experience some joy during a tough season.

  • Designate a day for special holiday rituals. “Pick a specific day so that your child has something to look forward to,” Nunez adds. Maybe every Friday you bake holiday cookies, or every Saturday you have a family movie night with hot chocolate, delivered pizza and a classic movie. These little holiday rituals can be very meaningful to children, she says.

  • Enjoy simple holiday pleasures. While teens are emotional and can get very sad, Kampkis says, it’s easy to forget that they can also get excited very easily. For example, her kids are thrilled when their favorite seasonal peppermint ice cream hits the stores each winter. She says this year may be about the simple pleasures, like making a trip to go get that ice cream, but simple joys can be just as meaningful.

Connect with loved ones

One of the hardest parts of the pandemic may be that many families won’t be able to safely gather for the holidays. While nothing beats a hug, Nunez highly encourages setting up recurring video chats for your kids to connect with friends or relatives they miss. You can also find ways to come together for big events virtually. Maybe you can’t be together in person this year, but why not have a Thanksgiving meal, Hanukkah prayers or Christmas gift unwrapping over Zoom?

This season can be especially hard if your family has lost a loved one. It may be helpful to create some new rituals to acknowledge them and incorporate them into the holiday, Kampkis says. “Find a way to be sad and mourn and grieve the loss of that person.”

One example Kampkis shares is a friend’s holiday tradition of setting aside all the Christmas ornaments her late mother gave her over the years. She builds in special time to hang those ornaments on the tree, remember her mom and process her grief and sadness.

This kind of ritual can offer families a way to move forward, says Kampkis, so they experience the joy of the season too, especially after a difficult year.

Seek help if the problem persists

If your child experiences emotional outbursts, sleep disturbances or physical issues that persist, Nunez suggests first reaching out to their school to see if the teacher has noticed any similar behaviors and to find out if the school has any resources.

“If it lasts beyond two weeks, then go to the pediatrician and ask about a referral to a therapist,” Nunez says. She adds that there are more telehealth resources than ever due to the pandemic, and a licensed therapist or counselor can offer strategies to help regulate your child’s emotions and cope with the changes.

Find support for yourself

Being a parent is harder than ever this year, and parents need to find ways to fill their tanks too, Nunez says. “You’re going to be frustrated, run down and tired, so you should make sure to take time for yourselves somehow, someway, to rejuvenate so you have the patience and care and compassion to parent your child.”

Ultimately, you want to avoid letting your stress seep into your kids. “When we’re struggling and feeling anxious, we don’t always need to share that with our families,” Kampkis says. Instead, she says, parents should seek support from good friends, a therapist and their own adult social networks. “We need safe outlets where we can vent, process our feelings and our own grief, so we can turn around and be strong for our families,” she says.

Nunez highly recommends therapy as a beneficial tool for all ages right now, especially as rates of anxiety and depression soar.

As a Marine, Jamieson never thought she’d seek out therapy. She took pride in her ability to maintain a career while raising four children mostly alone. But the stress of this year has been unlike any other, and when a friend checked in with her recently, she opened up and admitted she was struggling. She realized the importance of having people you can confide in and that it’s OK to not be OK. She made an appointment with a therapist and is looking forward to taking care of herself so she can be at her best for her kids.

COVID has taken so much from us this year, and this holiday season will be a strange one. But despite grieving the loss of our usual traditions, we can still leave room for joy. Phillips says she’s been honest with her kids that the pandemic has changed things, but she’s determined to keep the holiday spirit alive. “We plan to do as many things as we have always done that COVID can’t interfere with, and we’ve let our 5-year-old know that if there’s something she wants to do or see, to tell us and we’ll do what we can.”