Helping Children Cope with COVID During the Holidays

How you can help your child build resilience during these stressful times.

Posted Nov 16, 2020

Guest author: Julia Allen, LCSW

Julia Allen, used with permission
Source: Julia Allen, used with permission

“My friend at school told the class Santa’s not coming this year because he’s in a high-risk age category for COVID.”

“We were going to visit Grandpa out of state, but I don’t want to get him sick.”

“I’ve been looking forward to my senior year homecoming dance since I was a freshman, and I’m devastated that it was cancelled.”

These are all sentiments recently echoed to me in sessions by several of my young clients (details have been changed to protect confidentiality). As a child therapist, promoting healthy, flexible coping mechanisms in response to life’s stressors is a common treatment goal. Resilience helps us bounce back from life’s unavoidable bumps and bruises, and research shows that children who are more resilient have stronger cognitive skills, emotion regulation, parent relationships, and school engagement.

In 2020, our kids’ resilience has truly been tested, and this upcoming holiday season will likely bring its own set of challenges. For many children, family traditions around this time are a staple: this is when families gather, memories are made, and much-needed breaks from school are enjoyed. The ongoing pandemic has impacted nearly all spheres of our children’s lives, and the holiday season is not immune. This year will undoubtedly look different in terms of your family’s plans, rituals, and celebrations, but fortunately, there’s a lot parents can do to nurture resilience in their kids.

Stocksnap/Pixabay
Source: Stocksnap/Pixabay

1. To the extent possible, promote predictability and a sense of normalcy.
For most children—and adults—2020 has been a year of unpredictability, where the unimaginable becomes reality, and the world around us looks bizarrely different. For children, these changes can be very scary. Like all of us, they need routine and a sense of predictability to help “ground” them. Our brains don’t do well with persistent lack of structure, ongoing chaos, and continuous change—it overtaxes our decision-making and executive functioning, leaving us fatigued, irritable, and disconnected.

While much of the current situation is out of your control as a parent, there’s actually a lot you can do within the “sphere of influence” you have in your child’s life. We all exist within multiple systems. And while you can’t control the macrosystem, you do have the power to influence your child’s microsystem.

So what does this look like for promoting predictability during the holidays? Keep the family traditions that you can still do alive, and forge creative new ones. Can’t make hot cocoa in person with grandma like you always do? Have the kids assemble an ingredients kit, ask grandma to send over some instructions, and Zoom her in so she can virtually observe and “rate” how closely her grandchildren follow her cherished family recipe. Don’t be afraid to get silly, unconventional, and a little weird. Ask for—and really consider!—your child’s thoughts on how to keep traditions alive this holiday year. Children love to give their opinions. And if by doing so, they end up directly influencing the creation of a new family holiday ritual, then that’s a wonderful holiday memory—pandemic or not.

2. Deliberately practice gratitude and emphasize what’s going well.
It sounds trite, but the science doesn’t lie—research has proven that deliberately practicing gratitude increases your dopamine and serotonin levels, two neurotransmitters heavily involved in regulating our happiness levels.

In 1949, renowned neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, Ph.D., famously coined the expression “neurons that fire together wire together.” If you think of the brain and its neural networks as highways, the highways that are more frequently traveled will become more of your brain’s “go-to” routes. In contrast, the paths less traveled become used less frequently. So it’s in our child’s best interests to cultivate “neural gratitude highways.” This is a fun task that can be personalized to your child’s interests and even undertaken as a family! Gratitude journals, expressing one thing each family member is grateful for over a meal, or writing thank-you notes are all activities that cultivate an appreciation for the positives. 

John Hain/Pixabay
Source: John Hain/Pixabay

3. Let them feel their feelings.
Emotion coaching is a hugely popular discipline strategy for a reason—shouting and power struggles go down, and compliance goes up. This approach by John Gottman, Ph.D., emphasizes helping your kids connect to their emotions and learn to label and regulate them, especially in times of stress.

While the effects aren’t quite as immediate as yelling at them to go to their room because you’ve already answered their question four times, they’re significantly longer lasting. Emotion coaching teaches our kids the skills they need in order to self-regulate, which is critical during the teen years when they’re self-navigating through the emotional roller coaster that is adolescence. Research has shown that kids raised with this parenting style tend to do better in school and create stronger peer friendships than their counterparts. In short, emotion coaching supports resilience, which is key to helping your children cope this holiday season.

In a nutshell, emotion coaching has three elements:

  1. Validate their feelings: Show them you really, truly get their emotions. “You’re really upset that your school isn’t doing their usual holiday show. That makes perfect sense—I know you’ve been looking forward to playing the same role your brother had. I’d be mad, too.”
  2. Set a limit: If needed, after an unacceptable behavior. “In this house, no matter how mad we get, we do not call adults bad names.”
  3. Problem-solve: Get curious and elicit your child’s ideas on how to find solutions. “What do you think could make this better? What a cool idea, for us to put on a family holiday show at home!” 

Again, although this appears on the surface to be harder and more time-consuming than just giving your child “the look” or raising your voice to make them settle down, this parenting hack will ultimately save you so much time and energy. Take an honest step back: In this COVID era of distance learning, working from home, and Zoom fatigue, how many minutes of your day do you spend negotiating, repeating commands, or reiterating house rules to your kids? Emotion coaching can change these patterns, helping you parent more effectively and allowing your kids to feel heard — a win-win.

These are hard times for all of us, and the holidays often bring trials and tribulations all their own. Focusing on what you can control in your child’s environment, accepting what you can’t, and giving yourself grace as a parent can help you get through the season with your wellness and sanity intact.

About the guest author: Julia Allen, LCSW is a licensed therapist in La Jolla who specializes in providing therapy to children, teens, and their families. She has over 10 years of experience working with children in educational, residential and mental health settings. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and her master’s degree at San Diego State University. Her professional background includes extensive work with eating disorders and body image issues, anxiety and depression, anger and behavioral issues, family conflict, trauma and grief, ADHD, and parenting and divorce issues. She has received specialized training from Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego, UCSD Eating Disorders Center and Grossmont Union High School District. Julia provides therapy for children, teens, and families via her La Jolla private practice and is currently offering online teletherapy sessions. For more information, please visit her website at www.juliaallentherapy.com.