The holidays are supposed to be a time full of joy. Unfortunately, they can also bring with them stress, sadness and unrealistic expectations. Kids are affected by this just as much as adults. We talked to Children’s psychiatrist Stuart Goldman, MD, about how to help your kids cope with the holiday blues and make this a memorable holiday for the whole family.
The holidays can be especially tough for children who have lost a family member. What are your suggestions for helping a child cope with the loss of a loved one during these times?
The holidays bring back memories of things missed and that might have been. Parents need to give children permission to be sad and reminisce over the loss of a loved one. It’s okay to look through photo albums and have a remembrance at church or over dinner. It’s important for kids to remember the past and not have it shut off. Tell children that it’s okay to miss that loved one, but that you can still have a good holiday. Have them write a letter to Grandma who’s in heaven and start a new holiday tradition that will help make this year’s celebrations memorable.
What are signs of sadness or depression that parents should be aware of?
Sadness and anxiety are a part of life. It when they’re disproportional or extend too long and disrupt functioning that they become a problem. We should expect everybody to be a bit somber around the holidays or upset if they’ve lost a loved one. It’s when your child is irritable, won’t get out of bed and refuses to open presents that you should be more concerned. Episodic sadness is nothing to worry over. Only sustained sadness should be concerned about.
A lot of families are experiencing a tough time economically. How can parents explain to their kids why they won’t be receiving as many gifts this year or going to The Nutcracker?
Parents think kids don’t know about family problems, but they always do. Not talking to your children makes them feel excluded. Parents should be direct about their financial situation, but don’t need to share all of the details. You should shield them from things like being worried about making the mortgage payment, but should talk about why you can’t have the Christmas you’d like to have. Have this talk early on because kids always know.
Parents have the idea that it’s all about gifts and it’s really shared memories that make the holidays, but it’s creative family time that makes a difference during the holidays. Rent The Nutcracker on DVD, make popcorn and buy candy for everyone to share.
Children have come to have high expectations of the types and amount of gifts that they receive around the holidays. What has contributed to these expectations and what can parents do help their kids not get caught up in the commercial aspects of the holidays?
Kids have learned to have high expectations for the holidays and very few things actually live up to one’s fantasies. Parents whose kids have unrealistic expectations have to examine whether they are contributing to that. They should begin to address the topic of gifts early on – not on Christmas morning. If parents are proactive, Christmas morning won’t be a disaster. Parents often feel guilty about not being able to get their kids everything they want, which can result in anger because their kids aren’t appreciative of the gifts.
Break this larger conversation down to a few smaller serious conversations. Everybody has a wish and feels like the holidays are a time when they can be gratified. Parents have to set the line for realistic versus unrealistic gifts, wherever that may be in your family. There might be jealousy and sadness because your children didn’t get a certain gift that their friends did, but there are lessons to be learned. This is an opportunity to say we learned things and that it’s okay to be jealous. Maybe things will be different next year.
What makes the holidays great is that it’s shared time with parents. Building new experiences doesn’t cost anything. One thing my family does is make “surprise balls.” It’s a paper mache ball or hollow Christmas ornament where you hide a note about where someone’s present is in house and what it might be. Do something that contributes to fun family memories.
While you’re here, check out these other holiday-related blog posts:
- Pediatrician Claire McCarthy, MD, talks about why you should put downtime on your holiday calendar this season.
- Tynaya, a Youth Advisor in the Center for Young Women’s Health, recently wrote a blog about what the holidays mean to her.
- Michael Rich, MD, MPH, our Mediatrician, offers a great guide to holiday gifts this year. Plus find out how to shop for safe toys.
- Read some tips on how to balance your holiday eating this year.
- Don’t let glass holiday ornaments injure your child.