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Hope for the holidays
December 20, 2023
Father and daughter hugging and smiling

    By Kathryn L. Jones, MD, PhD, child and adolescent psychiatrist

    7 tips for managing feelings of sadness, anger and overwhelm during the holiday season

    The world can be a scary, confusing place for all of us, even at times of the year when we expect things to be merry and bright. That cognitive dissonance can be hard for adults to process, so how can we expect kids to do better? We have considered some of the emotional challenges that children and adolescents face during this holiday season – sadness, anger and feelings of overwhelm – in response to the world around them, and we offer some practical suggestions to manage these.

    1. Continue traditions that make sense – such as a special meal – and start new ones that can provide meaningful opportunities to connect with your child during the holidays.
    2. Even under the best circumstances, the hustle and bustle of the holidays can be a bit stressful. While breaks from school and visits to or from family and friends automatically disrupt routines, try to keep an element of familiarity in your child’s daily schedule. Make sure they are getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy foods along with the holiday treats, and have opportunities for fresh air and exercise. If they seem overwhelmed, they may benefit from some quiet time to rest or read a book. A calm break is good for adults too!
    3. Many families are facing the holidays with tight budgets. If big gifts or experiences are not realistic for your family, you are not alone. It is helpful to manage children’s expectations related to holiday activities and gifts in advance. This also allows an opportunity for them to see that you are making the best choice for them and your family. Treasure time together during the holidays, which is better than material gifts.
    4. The holidays are also a wonderful time to remind your children of the value of giving and helping others. You can look through toys and clothing they do not use anymore and donate them to local charities or go caroling at nursing homes to spread holiday cheer. They will learn that giving often brings more joy than receiving.
    5. Children may get caught up in the excitement of the day and not seem particularly sad. On the other hand, they may feel overwhelmed with sorrow. Both are normal. Remind your child – and yourself – that there will be a combination of happy moments, along with periods of sadness and tears. That is okay. Try to allow space for everyone to talk about how they are feeling while finding solace in each other’s presence.
    6. Make the day special in small ways that work for you without taking on more than you can handle emotionally. Family and friends often want to help but may not know how. Call on them to assist with tasks or simply offer comfort with their presence.
    7. Calendars fill up quickly as the year ends. Check in with your child throughout the holiday season to ask how they are feeling. Make sure to reserve some special time for your family to spend together doing things you love.

    Read on for more context on situations that can make the holidays hard and how to help.

    Finding moments of joy in a complicated season

    When we look back on every year toward its end, each one is remarkable in ways both positive and less so, globally and intimately personal. During the holiday season, reflection on the changes that have affected our daily lives is part of tradition for many of us, along with sharing food and closeness with our communities and loved ones.

    "I like to compare the holiday season with the way a child listens to a favorite story. The pleasure is in the familiar way the story begins, the anticipation of familiar turns it takes, the familiar moments of suspense, and the familiar climax and ending.”  -Fred Rogers

    There is something comforting about the familiar beats of the holiday experience, we generally know what to expect and what is expected of us in turn. However, it can be difficult to find comfort and joy in the season when our expectations are upended, particularly for children and adolescents. This year, as has been the case for the past several, has been rife with uncertainty.

    In January 2023, the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) published a report predicting some of the challenges children and adolescents would face over the course of the coming months; in April 2023, the results of a national survey of children and adolescents aged 9 to 13 were published, where the question asked was what was worrying kids today. Both reports highlighted key issues that illustrate the complicated world faced by this age group and explain ways in which children, teens and their families and communities are affected.

    It may seem disingenuous to imagine that celebrating Hanukkah, Las Posadas, Yule, Christmas or Kwanzaa (to name just a few of the season’s observances) can have any meaningful impact on how we and our children think and feel about the world around us. Nevertheless, the simple act of coming together, often breaking bread and spending time with family, friends and community can be transformative.

    The triple-demic continues (health, education and economy – grief and loss)

    For the past three years, our world has been in recovery, though still experiencing episodic relapses into ill health, whether physical, financial or social. The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, two years of virtual or home schooling, and global economic inflation or recession, struck everyone deeply, but none more so than children and teenagers who had little to no control over the impact these factors had on their daily lives. In an instant, they were unable to leave their homes unless necessary. They could not attend school or socialize with friends in person, sometimes needing to quarantine from even family members in the home if they or others developed COVID. Many families had to restrict their spending due to under- or unemployment, and many places of business closed due to lack of patronage.

    Now, we are in a different phase of the pandemic, with greater freedoms and some semblance of return to pre-COVID life, back in schools, back to work and often, back to spending. However, with this relatively rapid reversal of circumstances, many children, adolescents and their families have yet to reckon with what they experienced, whether losses or lessons. Children and teens may feel compelled to mask any sadness, anxiety or uncertainty during the season and this may present as emotional lability, irritability, oppositionality and withdrawal.

    Instead, the holidays can be an opportune time to reflect on these issues in the company of family and friends. People who are no longer with us can be grieved and we can be grateful for the time we had with them. We can acknowledge that as much as we missed being around others at school and work, it can be terribly overwhelming to find ourselves surrounded by others closer than six feet apart. Helping young people to feel safe to express the full spectrum of emotions and to feel supported regardless of their emotional response can be a powerful gift.

    Cracks in the foundation (international, national, community and personal – anger)

    We often underestimate the impact of consistent, predictable, interpersonal interactions on our capacity to feel safe, secure and happy. This is true regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality or nationality. This winter season, the ties that bind us together globally seem weaker than they have been in years. International conflicts in Ukraine and Israel continue to escalate. National disharmony in the run-up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election has grown more bitter and vitriolic, with animosity trickling down from the federal, to the state, to the local level, even winding its way into family gatherings. For younger children and even older teenagers, the news can be frightening, particularly when none of the adults at home or in the world seem to know what to do and everyone seems to be so terribly angry all the time.

    When families (both biological and chosen) meet, emotions both light and dark, are intensified. We delight in seeing family from whom we have been separated, take joy in welcoming new friends, and catching up with old ones. Strong emotions can make it difficult to keep separate from others without internal boundaries. Boundaries help us to know ourselves as unique beings and contain us so we do not fall into enmeshed states despite how tempting it may seem. Sometimes, those walls we maintain between ourselves and others do not touch gently but instead chafe roughly, as happens when we disagree with those whom we consider to be part of our network, the people whom we understand and who understand us best. This can be particularly destabilizing after a long absence, where time and distance can change loved ones into near strangers and even enemies.

    At no time is this more apparent than during the holiday season, although this time of year provides opportunities to do things differently. Establishing ground rules for everyone at the outset can help prevent friendly debates from descending into harsh arguments and can help to keep everyone focused on hearing each other’s words rather than on having the last word. Ground rules can also help to reduce confusion and distress around discussion of difficult topics, like wars and politics, for children who may not be able to tell the difference between voices being raised from passion for the subject and shouting out of anger that might turn into physical aggression. Finally, having clear ground rules gives everyone permission to experience the full spectrum of emotions safely, whether in company or taking space in another room. Anger is a useful emotion, and it can be challenging to remember that we can be angry and still be loving toward each other on any given day. Holidays often help to remind us of our best versions of ourselves and incentivize us to be that best self while also being emotionally honest with ourselves and accepting the same of others.

    Signal to noise (social media and internet eminent domain – overwhelm)

    Father and son waving to phone while FacetimingThe internet dominates nearly every aspect of our lives, for good or ill. The epitome of this is the ubiquitous mobile phone (for our purposes, we will use the term “iPhone” though we acknowledge that other hardware and operating systems exist). The iPhone connects us to everything and everyone at any time; it contains worlds yet fits in the palm of our hand. Many of the sights (or sites) and sounds available to us and to our children and adolescents provide information that helps us and them to better understand ourselves, to discover and explore things we find interesting, and to develop new perspectives. Some of these sites are created and maintained with the best intentions but inaccurate or misleading information. Unfortunately, others are designed with malice aforethought, and it can be difficult to tell which sites and sources are trustworthy. Children and teens are particularly vulnerable to misinformation and groupthink, and unlike their parents, they have only ever lived in a world where access is assumed and expected.

    It can be difficult to turn off or turn away from screens, and for some children and adolescents, it is unthinkable to even put the iPhone away without feeling cut off from their version of reality. However virtual it may seem to parents, many young people feel that their online identities and relationships are more meaningful and truer than anything they experience at home or in school. While this ease of connection can be a boon to shy or introverted children, it does come at the expense of learning how to manage anxiety and build healthy relationships in real life. Moreover, just as it can be difficult to tell if the information one reads on the internet is true, it can be as challenging to tell if the person with whom they feel connected is truthful (or if they are even people, given the rise of artificial intelligence). Taking away the iPhone can be a consequence of well-meaning concern about the impact of these relationships on children. Parents and families are often shocked to see the level of mood and behavioral dysregulation caused by even the threat of removal, as if they have attempted to cut off a limb. Children and teens may report feeling judged, misunderstood, and unable to tolerate the distress of separation, or any distress without their key coping mechanism.

    During the holidays, parents have the power to reframe their attitudes about use of the iPhone and to reinforce healthier use of this powerful instrument with their children, by encouraging everyone to take time away from their devices or to use them together for common cause (for example, FaceTime calls to family or friends who cannot be physically present). Acknowledging that adults also struggle with setting limits on their screen time can give a sense of parity that children and teens may not often feel, and they may find this validating. They may also find it satisfying to see the effect of face-to-face communication with people who love them but are unable to travel to be with them in person. Reconceptualizing their iPhone as a useful adjunct to their real-life relationships rather than a substitution for real life can be a meaningful change in thinking that continues once the season’s celebrations are over.

    "I don't need a holiday or a feast to feel grateful for my children, the sun, the moon, the roof over my head, music and laughter, but I like to take this time to take the path of thanks less traveled.” -Paula Poundstone

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