An opportunity this holiday season to instill gratitude and hope in our children

A pediatric psychologist’s thoughts on helping children find gratitude, hope and resilience this holiday season

For so many, this year has felt like a long haul with no end in sight. A global pandemic, racial injustice and economic insecurity have all contributed to surging rates of mental illness in families across our community. Young people, Black and Hispanic communities, essential workers and unpaid caregivers report the highest rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and thoughts of suicide. Children, like all of us, have experienced so much loss and uncertainty, evidence of which I see every day in my work with children and families.

The holidays often bring feelings of joy and excitement for many; while for others, the holidays can be filled with stress and dread, as we navigate difficult relationships within our families, pressures to spend even when facing financial hardship, managing the expectations of many or facing the loss of a loved one — a painful reminder of the empty seat at our holiday table.

Families are hurting and wondering how they will get through the holidays this year given such uncertainty. As parents and caring adults, we strive so hard to shield children from distress and despair, and wonder how we can maintain the spirit and magic of our much-loved rituals and traditions when it seems we may not be able to celebrate as we have in years past.

One thing is for certain: This year the holidays will be different and undoubtedly memorable. We are faced with the opportunity to help our children not only navigate the challenges of the coming months and cope with anger and grief over what has been lost and what will not be, but also instill gratitude and hope for all that we have and what’s yet to come.

In my practice as a child psychologist, as well as a parent of two children, I’m inspired every day by children’s great capacity for resilience and growth. They face hardship beyond their control and yet find ways to bounce back and emerge stronger. This resilience occurs through a beautiful network of internal and external resources in the lives of children, a process psychologist Ann Masten, Ph.D., calls, “ordinary magic.” Children’s capacity to adapt under difficult circumstances is increased when they are surrounded by loving caregivers who look out for them and model good coping and problem solving.

So the question we now face is how can we support the resilience of our children this holiday season? A good time to start is today. Help our children cope ahead. Start talking about the holidays to prepare children for what to expect and what will be different. Help them understand, as they have likely learned already this year, that plans may change at the last minute due to an unforeseen illness or last-minute travel cancellations.

Ask children, “What can we do to make this year special?” Ask them their favorite memories from past years, what they cherish most about the holidays, and explore with them new ways to celebrate. Tell them, “Because this year will be different, I’m going to need your help.” Spend time in these conversations focusing on adjusting or creating new traditions that are still meaningful, and perhaps reconnect to the values behind the celebrations — those of gratitude, kindness, giving and hope.

Allow children a sense of control by offering them choices. Perhaps a large family gathering can be replaced by preparing traditional family recipes and delivering them safely to loved ones and neighbors. Expand the seats at your holiday table through virtual sharing of meals and recipes. Spend time as a family hand-writing holiday cards with personal messages for those you hold dear even when they are far.

Ask children how they’re feeling and share your feelings, too. Ignoring feelings doesn’t make them go away. It’s important to admit that you, too, are sad and disappointed that things will be different this year, but it’s still possible to turn the holidays into positive and memorable experiences. Acknowledge negative feelings and teach positive reframing. “I’m sad too that we can’t visit grandma, but staying home this year will mean more time to play and relax. Perhaps we can find some new cookie recipes to try.” Feelings are contagious, so take care of your own feelings so you can model that coping for your children.

Norton Children’s Medical Group

If talking about concerns isn’t helping your child feel better, it’s time to meet with your child’s pediatrician.

Many faiths and cultures have stories of resilience built into the rituals and traditions surrounding our holidays. Look to these stories as examples of how others have navigated difficult times, and share them with your children. Tell stories of resilience either from your own childhood, the lives of close friends or family members, or people throughout history who’ve endured hardships such as these. Remind children that they, too, will be all right.

This is the year our children likely will remember well into their elder years — stories told to future generations about hardship and hope. Loss and renewal. These themes are a thread that runs through holiday traditions across faiths and cultural beliefs as we remind our children, and ourselves, that even on our darkest day, light is on the horizon.

Katy Hopkins, Ph.D., is a pediatric psychologist with Norton Children’s Medical Group, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine.