Supporting children & young people during the Christmas Holiday Period

Whether you celebrate Christmas itself or not, the holiday period is approaching when families often get together. As new concerns emerge again about COVID-19 we think about how to support children and young people during this time.

Last December many families’ Christmas plans were cancelled and changed at the last minute, and although there was some was some hope of a more ‘normal’ holiday period this year, we have already seen a reintroduction of COVID-19 measures and face more uncertainty about what is to follow with the new variant.

This raises difficult questions for parents and families to think about - should families visit isolated grandparents? Is it more damaging to see them, or not see them?

Rachel Melville-Thomas, Child Psychotherapist and spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP), provides advice on how to keep things peaceful and happy this Christmas. She emphasises the importance of recognising what has gone on, talking about it and allowing time to reflect on the changes of the past 21 months.

Rachel says, “Over the past year, families and individuals may have seen separations or divorce, gone through hospitalisation or bereavement, experienced falling out between people, and all kinds of disappointment. It’s important to prepare, to think ahead about the best realistic plan that keeps everyone safe and yet in touch – in a house together or through online greetings. This also means reducing sky-high expectations for children and keeping everyone in a spirit of flexibility and kindness.”

Some advice from Rachel and other ACP members:

  • If you are exchanging gifts, plan and decide what kind of gifts and activities you can manage – especially if you are facing a lot of financial pressures, and then tell the children what is coming up. Explain that there will be opportunities to do things together – such as playing games, doing Crafts etc and stick to these.

  • If children are annoyed or disappointed about not having a certain toy/item, agree with them on how hard it is, and that you understand. Once this has been acknowledged you could think about whether there are other opportunities to have this item, such as, for a birthday present.

  • If your situation has changed following divorce, bereavement or a house move - you may need think about ‘new traditions’ during the holiday period and involve children in the planning and preparations.

  • If the family is divided or there have been some fallings out – let everyone know what you are comfortable with as well as being generous about sharing time with children. Set realistic goals for “who I’d like to see during the holidays” and be clear about boundaries – some families will feel a need to ‘catch up’ on ‘missing out’ on last year and will want to do big a big Christmas gathering, but if you feel unsure about this it is ok to set a boundary. Large family gatherings are also likely to be quite overwhelming for young children who have spent a great deal of their lives only with immediate family or in settings with a very reduced capacities. Therefore, from a sensory and emotional perspective they may need support to regulate such gatherings  - such as frequent breaks and building in some quieter times.

  • Given the multiple disappoints and lack of control everyone is likely to have experienced during the pandemic, it is easy to focus on one event, such as Christmas needing to be ‘good’ or ‘normal’. It is important to remind ourselves that Christmas is only one day, and that we do not need to put pressure on ourselves or others for it to be ‘perfect’.

  • Think carefully about planning activities over the holiday period, as although there are many more activities available this year, compared to last year, with continuing high levels of Covid – 19 cases, you may suddenly find yourself isolating and having to cancel plans. These sudden changes can be very difficult for children, especially those children who have experienced a lot of change and uncertainty generally, as they may experience the change or cancellation as further confirmation that the world is a rubbish place, or that ‘bad things’ happen to them. They may even feel quite rejected if a friend or family member cannot visit so it can be important to allow the young person to verbalise this. This could especially be the case if it is a loved grandparent, friend, or a non-resident parent that can suddenly no longer visit.

  • Help your child grapple with ‘not knowing’. It is very frustrating for children when adults cannot give clear answers or reassurance, but you can acknowledge this – how hard it is that we don’t know when we can see Grandma, or your cousin etc.

  • It is also important to keep in mind that children will be sensitive to the adult anxiety about the new variant, and there may be ongoing worries about what this will mean – will the vaccine work now? Will there be another lockdown? Will I take my exams? It is important to allow your child to verbalise these worries as they arise.

  • Have a plan B – should your family end up having to isolate for a period of time, it is useful to have some activities in mind to help pass the time and structure the days.

  • Look back and reminisce about previous holiday times – really listen to each other’s choices for the best holidays. Remembering them stores up a treasure box of memories that can be a buffer against the challenges this year.

  • It may also be helpful to reflect upon the year generally and encourage children and young people to think about what they have enjoyed/achieved in this year, as despite the ongoing challenges that the pandemic has continued to present, it is helpful to allow children to hold a narrative of the year that is not all ‘bad’  - that when difficult things happen it is still possible to have some good experiences.

If you are worried about a child or young person’s mental health over the Christmas holiday period, speak to your GP or another professional that knows your child. CAMHS services remain open during the ordinary working days in the holiday period and some CAMHS services have out of hours support, it is worth checking in your local area.

There are also several crisis support lines for children and young people: