Ask the Expert: How parents can help their children through a pandemic holiday season

The holiday season is typically filled with family gatherings and once-a-year activities. For children, that means seeing grandparents and extended family members, visiting Santa Claus and attending community events such as tree-lighting ceremonies.

But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, extended family members are encouraged not to gather, Santa Claus will be seen from a distance, and many events are canceled.

Beth TrammellView print quality image
Beth Trammell, associate professor of psychology at IU East. Photo by Leo Flores, courtesy of Beth Trammell

How can parents and caregivers help children understand these changes while still enjoying the holiday season? Beth Trammell, a licensed psychologist, parenting researcher and associate professor of psychology at Indiana University East in Richmond, provided a few tips on keeping the joy in this strange holiday season.

"There is no doubt this holiday season is going to be a tough one for many families," Trammell said. "For many children, those changes can be hard to understand. But there are little things we can do to help our youngest family members enjoy the holiday season while staying safe."

First, Trammell said, do not underestimate the impact of pandemic fatigue. Many Americans are emotionally and physically tired, and that includes children. Keep in mind that negative behaviors are often the result of, and indicative of, kids' level of overwhelming fatigue, she said.

Additionally, children might feel grief or loss over missing out on traditions, possibly leading them to negatively react, which might look like overreacting in an adult's mind.

"Have patience and try to listen intently and empathize, rather than simply see it as them being dramatic or overreacting," Trammell said. "If it matters to them, allow it to matter to us, even if only briefly. Try not to perceive them as a 'brat' or 'ungrateful.' Rather, just remind yourself that these things do matter deeply to them, and allow space for them to share those big feelings with you."

Instead of focusing on what will not happen this year, Trammell suggests parents keep the focus on what can happen. Create new traditions and make the activities you can do together special. Approach the holidays with excitement and a positive outlook, she said, and your children will follow your lead.

In the end, Trammell said, parents' presence will always matter more, in the long run, than the things we buy for children.

This doesn't mean that kids don't desperately want that new video game or that they won't beg for a new phone. But the individualized presence we can extend to them will go further than anything else in developing our relationship with them, Trammell said.

"Memories and new traditions can be made to help minimize the struggle of missing certain things this holiday season," she said. "Families should document new traditions --with a photo book or scrapbook or storybook -- so your kids can come back to those memories and remember them happily."

Finally, Trammell said she is reminded that, if she stays focused on the things that really matter -- perhaps even journaling about them or writing small reminders -- it makes it a bit easier to let the other things go as the pandemic goes on.

"I encourage all of us, parents or not, to just try to always stay grounded in those things that really matter," she said. "Practicing gratitude and positivity is always important and definitely will be important as we enter into this new holiday season."

April Toler is the senior associate director of research communications in the Indiana University Office of the Vice President for Research.