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How to Get Your Family Through a Pandemic Holiday

How to Get Your Family Through a Pandemic Holiday

Here's how you can talk to kids about missing loved ones, manage holiday disappointments, manage your kids' and your anxiety, and more this holiday season.

If you won’t be able to see family as you usually do this holiday due to the coronavirus (whether you’re doing your part to reduce the spread of COVID-19 or a loved one has passed), you may be wondering how to explain this to your kids and how to ensure they still have a happy holiday season, despite how confusing everything is right now. We spoke with Jill S. Cohen, CT, family grief counselor, to get the best advice for having a conversation with kids about missing loved ones this holiday and for making sure this holiday is filled with happy memories for the whole family. Use this advice to help your family get through a very different and confusing holiday season, while ensuring that your own stress and anxiety levels are managed, too.

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Explaining Why Your Loved One isn’t Around this Holiday

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends small gatherings limited to only the members of your own household this holiday season. This means anyone who doesn’t currently live in your house—like grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends—may not be a part of your holiday celebrations like they have in years past. Cohen, who offers in-person and virtual private practice grief counseling for children and adults, suggests explaining to young ones that the reason some loved ones can’t be around this year is because of how much you truly love them:

“We really, really want to be with [family members] this holiday, but for the same reason we haven’t been going to our friends’ houses or to school or to restaurants, we can’t be with them this holiday. We love them so much that we don’t want to get them sick if we have bad germs or they have bad germs. If we have the holiday without them this year, we can hopefully see them soon and next holiday, too. When we love someone, we don’t want to get them sick.”

On the other hand, some family members may not be present at your gathering this year due to passing, whether from COVID-19 or other causes. This can be even more difficult to help your child reconcile with, but Cohen reminds us that allowing your child to grieve and encouraging them to talk about the lost loved one is important.

“Acknowledge that this is a sad time for all of us, and we feel sad and we might even cry because our heart hurts without them being there. It's okay to feel our feelings and be sad and mad that they are not here,” Cohen says.

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Remind your children that the loved one will always be in your hearts and you can still talk about them, play the games they liked, eat the foods they liked, and even go around and say why you were thankful to have that person in your life. Some of the other things Cohen does when working with children to prepare for holidays without a loved one include:

  • Going around and sharing a memory of them

  • Bringing something to the holiday that reminds you of them and explaining why

  • Journaling or writing letters to them

  • Creating a book that’s called “I miss you this holiday season because…”

  • Drawing pictures of them

  • Making candles and lighting them in honor of your loved one

  • Ordering a photo mug or glass with the picture of your loved one

  • Making a special gift you would have given to your loved one

  • Reading some children’s books about grief together

  • Making a photo collage

How to Get Uninterested Kids Involved in the Celebration

When kids or teens don’t get their way, the alternative can be uninteresting to them. You might spend days planning an alternate holiday celebration for your kids only for them to be irritable and not want to be involved. If this happens, try to make the situation light and poke fun at the whole thing. Call Thanksgiving “the Not Thanksgiving” and have everyone pick a food to add to the meal that is not typical of Thanksgivings past, like sushi appetizers or pizza. Family games are also a great way to get kids involved in the conversation, although maybe initially begrudgingly, Cohen suggests. Here are some of our favorite family board games. Maybe you’ll get matching Christmas pajamas for the whole family or have an ugly Christmas sweater contest, too.

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Managing Your Childrens’ Anxiety this Holiday Season

While many things will be different this year, some don’t have to change at all, and keeping those constants can help your child feel less anxious this year. Get your child involved in planning for the holiday by asking what their favorite parts of holidays past have been and do your best to replicate the things you can. Ask your child: What should we eat? What decorations should we make or put up? Who should we invite on a Zoom call? Should we send cards to special people who are usually with us on the holiday? Cohen says keeping an open dialogue with your child will help make them feel calm and happy.

“It might be surprising to hear your child’s answers and to get their insight as to what parts of the holiday makes them anxious,” Cohen says. “You will learn what things you can do to adjust their anxiety once you know what specifically causes it. For example, if they say they would be less anxious if they could see their friends, you know you have to set up a Zoom play date for them with that person.”


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Managing Your Own Anxiety this Holiday Season

While you may feel compelled to make sure everyone else is happy this holiday, your own mental health is just as important. Plus, the happier and more stress-free you feel, the happier your kids will be too. If you feel yourself getting anxious, Cohen suggests taking deep breaths and drinking water in that moment. If you’re feeling guilty about not hosting family members with nowhere to go, “get out of your head” and take a reality check. Remember: We’re all doing this so we can be together next year and everyone is having a compromised holiday. No one asked for a “weird” holiday this year, but it’s what we’ve got so we have to accept that it’s not in our control. Putting a positive spin on everything this holiday season, whether it’s Zoom or a smaller holiday dinner, can help children respond similarly.

RELATED: This is How to Manage Kids’ Gift Expectations This Year

Giving Hope for Future Holidays

With so much uncertainty in the world right now, you may be wondering how you can ensure your kids are hopeful for special occasions, holidays, and years to come (especially if you aren’t feeling quite hopeful yourself these days). Cohen  suggests using language that expresses hopefulness and future, like: “We should be able to have a party or celebration next holiday. And if we’re not ready yet, I promise we’ll figure out another way to do fun things and party.” You can also help kids feel hopeful by reminding them all of the things your family has to be thankful for this year, like the food you have to eat, the house you have to live in, the family you can be around, being able to learn, etc.

Whatever your family does this holiday, all of us at NYMetroParents sincerely hope it’s a happy one with as little stress as possible.

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Melissa Wickes

Author: Melissa Wickes is a graduate of Binghamton University and the NYU Summer Publishing Institute. She's written hundreds of articles to help New York parents make better decisions for their families. When she's not writing, you can find her eating pasta, playing guitar, or watching reality TV. See More

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