Missing family members will affect us all during a pandemic holiday season, but our kids especially need support. Here's how to help them through it.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
November 24, 2020
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Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Dear Worried Mom,

Kudos to you for making the tough decision to do holidays differently this year. Even though all of us paying attention to the warnings and advice from public health experts know this is needed, it is really hard to do in this emotionally draining year. Other years, we may complain about all the quirks of our extended family during holiday get-togethers, but this year togetherness feels more important than ever. Right when we shouldn't do it.

Many adults who have the brain function to fully understand the risks and benefits of these decisions still struggle, so no surprise our children may have even more trouble wrapping their brains around these tough choices. I offer you advice with two key parts: finding strategies to stay connected even if physically apart, and building up you and your son's coping skills for his unhappiness.

Strategies to Stay Connected

Although we often think of grief as part of managing the death of a loved one, life with COVID reminds us that it takes many forms. We are all grieving the way we used to live. What used to feel normal and easy has now become dangerous. This includes our social connections, which takes a huge toll on our emotional well-being. One of the key ways to manage grief in death can apply to our current grief in life: stay connected.

Fortunately, this current grief is temporary, and staying connected is possible. One upside of a global pandemic is how resourceful we have become, and how many new resources now exist! Although Zoom and FaceTime may feel completely overdone by now, I am still discovering new ways to use it for fun. Our family plans to use a web-based game program via Zoom to mimic playing board games together. To replace Thanksgiving plans with one set of grandparents, we shipped them treats that we will plan to enjoy "together" during a Zoom call. To make sure we connect with everyone in several different states, we will map out a schedule so the kids know what to expect throughout our day of being with family virtually.

See if your son would want to brainstorm with you some creative ideas for feeling together with his grandparents and cousins without the physical togetherness. Kids often have better ideas than we do! Could he find ways to replicate some usual holiday activities, with a new twist? Getting him involved and excited might help offset the general unhappiness of a different holiday season this year.

Feel the Feelings

This leads us to the coping skills part. No matter how much optimism we muster, or how many silver linings we find, this situation stinks. None of us chose to live in a global pandemic. On an individual level, besides taking care of our own families living within our four walls, we cannot change the situation. This reality of a major, chronic stress combined with the stress being uncontrollable gives us a recipe for difficult and unpleasant emotions.

This provides us and our children an opportunity, though, that can truly serve us for life: dealing with these emotions instead of trying to avoid or escape them. In psychology, we use a fancy term called "distress tolerance" that can be central to overall psychological well-being. What does this look like in real life and not a psychology textbook? Holding your son's hand while he feels the feelings. All the feelings. Or maybe not holding his hand if he wants to be alone with them. He can figure out what he needs, and you can let him know you will listen to what he needs.

Reassuring and cheering up our children comes as one of the most natural urges of parenthood. We want to make it better. We want that ability to protect to be just as easy as washing and bandaging a scrape on the knee. When it comes to tough feelings, though, we help our children more if we listen and empathize instead of attempt to take away the feelings. The only way out of these emotions is through them, and the more we try to find ways around feeling them, the more they build up.

If you can share your own distress (in a calm way!), this models for him that it is OK to feel upset and unhappy, and to talk about it. Finding comfort and support starts with saying the problem out loud. When children have permission to share their unpleasant feelings without being talked out of them, they have a chance to learn what helps them cope. They also build confidence that when they go through tough times in life, they know they can handle it.

The Bottom Line

Instead of finding the right words to help your son feel better about a sad situation, you can support him in two key ways. First, brainstorm strategies with him to help the family feel more together even as you are physically apart. Second, as hard as it feels to watch your son suffer, stay by his side to help him through his emotions rather than around them. The best part of being with him in his unhappiness is when the happy moments come, they feel that much sweeter, and you feel that much closer.

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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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