Sometimes the most wonderful time of the year arrives at the worst time of your life.
Divorce, death, layoffs – grief-inducing losses don’t take a holiday, and they can wreak havoc on yours, particularly if you’ve got children looking for you to uphold the annual traditions that bring them so much joy.
A familiar face no longer at the dinner table, fewer gifts, even a new, unfamiliar home – all can feel like an affront to the senses at a time of year when rituals are sacred.
We contacted a handful of experts for advice on helping kids navigate the holidays when unhappy circumstances mean the traditions they’ve grown accustomed to are changing.
▪ Avoid the busy trap. It’s tempting – and easy, this time of year – to stuff your calendar so full that your children will hardly have time to notice the changes afoot. The problem, of course, is that they’ll still notice. As well they should.
“Some parents will fill all the silences with chatter to keep the kids from talking about the loss,” says family therapist Janis Clark Johnston, author of “It Takes a Child to Raise a Parent: Stories of Evolving Child and Parent Development” (Rowman and Littlefield). “Or give a child more and more presents, trying to cover the grief.”
Which doesn’t keep kids from feeling blue. It just teaches them they shouldn’t talk about it.
“All children (and adults) need permission for the expression of grief,” Johnston writes in her book. “Our culture tends to blanket grieving with pillows of denial; taking pills, keeping busy and ignoring losses are commonplace. However, children are not as adept as adults at denial.”
All the more reason to build in some quiet and stillness into the season. They’ll need it this year more than ever.
▪ Let them talk about the old life. “Some families stop talking about someone once they’re no longer there, either because of death or divorce,” says New York-based clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg. “What that does is introduce the concept of shame – someone should be ashamed of themselves for thinking about or talking about the person who’s missing.”
Johnston encourages families to talk openly about the things they love or loved – and didn’t love so much – about an absent party.
“Maybe you start with, ‘Let’s think of all the wonderful things about grandpa,’” she says, followed by time for favorite memories, silly stories and so on, taking care not to shush or correct them for painting a less-than-heroic portrait of the person.
“Children have different ideas than we have as adults,” Johnston says. “You want to let them talk about all of their feelings.”
That might mean a kid talks about a favorite gift from the parent who’s spending Christmas in a different house this year. It might mean a kid finally admits he always hated your late Aunt Georgia’s casserole. This is the year to let it all fly – appropriately and with love, of course.
▪ Enlist them in creating the new life. “The most important thing you can do is engage your child in the discussion about how things are going to be different this year,” says pediatrician Alanna Levine, author of “Raising a Self-Reliant Child: A Back-to-Basics Parenting Plan from Birth to Age 6” (Ten Speed Press). “‘What are the things we’ve always done at the holidays that have been the most special? What version of that can we do this year?’ It’s so important that children feel validated and heard.”
It also ensures that you’re focusing on the right things. After all, what you always assumed was your child’s favorite part about a holiday may be less meaningful to them than you thought.
“Far better to listen to what your kids think about all this ritual stuff than assume you know what it means to them,” Johnston says. “So many adults are still trying to account for their unmet needs from childhood and creating rituals to meet their own needs.”
Before you assume Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a turkey (which you’re not sure how to cook), or Hanukkah just isn’t Hanukkah without the eight days of gifts (which you can no longer afford), just ask.
And allow them to suggest completely new rituals too.
“Everybody likes novelty, especially if they’ve (played) a part in developing the new traditions,” Greenberg says.
“I like the idea of introducing service traditions around the holidays. We all need a place to love, to play and to feel necessary. It’s when you don’t feel necessary that you start to feel hopeless. Serving food at a homeless shelter helps kids feel necessary and shows them they can make a difference.”
▪ Temper your expectations. This just might not be the best holiday ever, and that’s OK.
“There will probably be moments of happiness, but it’s also OK to be sad,” Levine says. “Especially if you’re talking about the death of a loved one. You can’t make that into a happy holiday season.”
Do your best to not feel guilt about the changes your kids are enduring, and know that on some levels, the struggle is actually good for them.
“I know it’s easy for me to say, ‘Parents should find comfort knowing their child is learning a life lesson,’” Levine says. “But I do think there’s something to be gained from having to work through difficult situations and learn that you get to try it all again next year. It can actually add to the meaningfulness of the holiday.”
And what good is tradition without meaning?