When Life, School and the Holidays Look Different: How to Help Your Children Cope

December 18, 2020

By Charlotte Siemens, MD
Board Certified Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Prairie View

When students returned to school this fall, they did so with masks, hand sanitizer, plexiglass and social distancing measures in place. Now, as many schools have moved to hybrid or remote learning, the educational landscape looks even more different. Throw in a holiday season that might look different from past years, too, and we could be finding ourselves and our children more stressed than usual. However, knowing that our children are looking to us for guidance on how to react, we can take certain preventative measures to help both our children and ourselves cope.

For the younger kids ages 0-3, forget the details! They’ll likely not recall detailed memories and you’ll save yourself some stress. Instead, focus on spending some quality time together. Decorate cookies, snuggle under some warm blankets, and have a family read-aloud time. They will benefit from the love and attention they’ll receive. 

Children between 4 and 6 years old may have a negative reaction to the changes taking place. Not seeing grandparents or extended family will be disappointing, but that is a normal reaction and should not be punished. Children need to know it’s okay to feel sad, disappointed or angry. To help them cope, focus on the positive: “Since we can’t travel to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, we get to spend extra time relaxing and playing.” Now is also the perfect time to create new Christmas traditions with your immediate family. Children this age may become more vocal in asking questions about COVID-19 and if they will be safe. Provide reassurance that adults are working hard to keep them safe. Let their questions guide you. Answer them truthfully, but don’t give unnecessary facts. Let them ask questions, listen, play and repeat the cycle. Letting them absorb the information that way will give them a sense of control, which reduces fear.

Children and adolescents ages 6-12 years old will understand the precautions that are being taken to control the spread of COVID-19. Children this age also need to have their feelings validated, whether it’s disappointment, sadness or even relief. Involve them in the holiday planning by asking them for ideas. How can the holidays be made special? What activities can you do together as a family? Perhaps it’s watching a favorite uplifting Christmas movie. Incorporate some relaxation strategies and you’ll help your children build resiliency.

For the teens in your life, perhaps the most important thing you can do is listen, so ask them how they’re feeling and let them know that if they want to talk, you’re available. Allow them a sense of control by letting them contribute to decision-making, scheduling and activity planning. Focus on positive experiences, and help them recognize that life will not be ruined if they don’t find the newest gaming system under the tree.

You are your child’s role model. Parents and caregivers can lead by example by establishing regular sleep habits, eating nutritious food on a regular basis, exercising and using good coping skills. Taking care of yourself is more important than ever, and you are not selfish for taking time to get some Vitamin D, deep breathe, exercise and relax. Besides, children and adolescents thrive on these habits, too, and if they see you modeling this behavior, they are likely to follow. 

However, we know times are tough. Because many families are struggling this year, it is more important than ever to connect with local resources. There is no shame in seeking additional help, especially if it benefits you and your family.

Reach out to your child’s teacher if you have concerns about them keeping up with assignments or coping with remote learning in general. If nutrition or food shortages are an issue in your household, check with your school district and social services to obtain food. 

Be aware of mental health resources available in your community. Prairie View offers telehealth services so you can speak confidentially with a mental health professional from your home, office or parking lot. A mental health crisis hotline is also available by calling 800-362-0180. No crisis is too big or small, and we are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

As a parent or caregiver, you must learn how to remain positive and calm and manage your own emotions this holiday season. Allow yourself to feel angry, sad or worried. Look at the big picture and try to adjust your expectations if needed. 

Being a parent or caregiver comes with a lot of pressure. Your children look up to you, and you may find that to be overwhelming. However, our goal is not to be perfect. Inspire your children and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. After all, haven’t we all learned this year that we’re in this together?