By Joshua Essery, PsyD, ABPP
The holidays may bring about anticipation, hope, and a sense of renewal, tradition and family. For many, the idea of being together with loved ones, exchanging gifts and reconnecting makes this season their favorite time of year. Children can especially be a focus of the holiday season and families may pour a great deal of effort into making the holidays special so that fond childhood memories will be carried forward by their kids.
Unfortunately, holidays can also bring feelings such as sadness, grief, stress and anger. This season can remind us of losses, shine a light on family conflict, and lead to reflecting upon what we don’t have or haven’t accomplished over the past year. Our children can be especially sensitive to family interpersonal dynamics during this season, making it important for parents to be aware of how interactions and emotions may be impacting their children.
As the holiday season is upon us, the following considerations can help parents be better prepared:
Are there grudges or hard feelings I am holding onto that may be apparent to my children?
Holiday gatherings often put us face to face with family members who we feel have disappointed or wronged us in some manner. Grudges in general are bad for our psychological and at times physical health. They often begin from a legitimate feeling of hurt, but can produce resentment, hostility and bitterness when held onto.
Our kids learn from observing how we manage our hurt, conflict, and how we treat others who have wronged us. Ask yourself if there are hard feelings you are harboring, or grudges you are holding onto, during this holiday season, particularly towards family members. How might you wish to change the way you manage these hurts and the way you relate or interact with family members this holiday season?
Am I co-parenting well? Do I interact in ways that directly of subtly demand loyalty from my children? Do I interact in manners that leave my kids feeling that they have to choose between sides of the family?
Holidays can be especially difficult for co-parenting, non-traditional families and step-parents. Custody conflicts can re-emerge along with unresolved feelings about parent relationships. Time often is expected to be shared during the holidays by parents who are no longer together and may not get along very well. Children are thus often transported between families and locations contributing to interactions in a pace, or with significance not always experienced during other parts of the year.
Interactions that occur during such change can bring about a great deal of feelings for kids who may feel unduly burdened, pressured or even guilty when separated or divorced parents are not co-parenting well. If you are in a co-parenting situation ask yourself if you are communicating directly without being defensive or trying to settle old scores. Reflect on how to share time and limit stress for your children during times of transition.
Can I forgive myself?
The holidays invite self reflection and introspection. During this time of year many people may find themselves focusing on their perceived failures and limitations. This can leave children in a position where they have to cope with the parent’s sadness, and at times, cheer up their parent. Kids may feel that they are not enough, or in some way lacking if their parents are sad and overly focused on negativity in their life. This can get in the way of the family being able to experience a sense of togetherness and shared connection.
If you are struggling to cope with feelings of guilt, shame or a sense of failure, can you provide yourself with grace and forgiveness to yourself for what you believe is lacking? Might there be accomplishments and positive aspects of your life, or your family, that you are not considering? Compassion with our selves often translates to generosity, openness and compassion with others.
Do I recognize the significance of losses and allow myself to grieve?
This season can remind us of close relationships and family members we have lost. We may find that family gatherings and traditions bring up memories and feelings that we would prefer to avoid. This could be of a beloved parent or grandparent who is no longer living. It could also be of an estranged friend or family member who no longer engages with us. Loss is a hard, but normal part of life.
Grieving our losses in healthy manners is essential to our psychological health. During this season reflect on what losses may be impactful to you and be intentional about how you wish to honor and remember those who are no longer with you.
The holidays are an important part of our family life. They have the potential to create memories and experiences that impact our children throughout their life. This holiday season provides us an opportunity to be intentional about fostering an environment where connection, togetherness and a larger sense of meaning govern our family activities and interactions. We have the chance to be reflective about any personal issues and family dynamics that may limit our families from experiencing the holidays as joyful. May we all model the importance of self compassion, grace, forgiveness, self-reflection, resolving conflict, and connection for our children during this season.