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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. Over the past two years many family plans had to be cancelled at the last minute, in a context of high anxiety about elderly family members, and wider losses for children including the closure of schools.

While anxieties about COVID have not entirely gone away, this is the first Christmas since 2019 when families are expecting to socialise, meet with extended family, travel, and make plans. For many children the festive period is one of huge anticipation, excitement and pleasure but also loss of routine, and a sensory and emotional overload. This year, for adults, children and adolescents there might be a greater pressure for things to be ‘perfect’ and a wish to make up for what has been lost.

This is also a time of continued stress and uncertainty for many families – the cost of living crisis, cuts to many crucial services that support children and families, and the backdrop of COVID have left many people much more aware of how suddenly things can change and be out of our control.

We think about how to support children and young people during this time, how to enjoy the festive period, while being realistic about your own expectations and limits as adults and parents, and staying attuned to what children and young people need.

Some advice from Rachel Melville-Thomas, Child Psychotherapist and spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP), and other members:

  • Be aware of your own expectations and feelings as a parent. Many adults at this time of year experience high emotions and conflicting pressures and demands. It is not uncommon for adults to feel pulled back into old family dynamics with their own parents and siblings, and to feel lots of guilt and responsibility to get it right for their own children. It can be a time of feeling very isolated, or very crowded by others. Make some space to think about how you are feeling, the pressures you are under, and to predict what you might find difficult.
  • Plan ahead, be flexible and set boundaries. 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 a big Christmas gathering, but if you feel unsure about this it is ok to set a boundary.
  • 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.  
  • 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. Acknowledge change and losses, verbalise what your child might be letting you know they are feeling. This helps feelings be much more manageable, thought about and understood.
  • For younger children this can be an incredibly exciting time with lots of anticipation and new experiences. This excitement, emotion and unpredictability can become overwhelming and children might communicate this through meltdowns and changes in their behaviour. Try to establish some sort of routine over the holiday period, make time to play, relax and connect emotionally with children, talk to them about plans and what to expect and prepare them for any bigger events such as meeting lots of family altogether. Feel able to say no to planning too many exciting activities or being with large, noisy groups. Talk to your child on a practical and emotional level about what is going on, this can help them to feel understood and contained.
  • Be realistic about what you and your child can manage and predict where there might be moments of disappointment, meltdowns, and situations that are too much. If there are situations that are difficult to avoid, for example a long journey, be prepared for the likelihood of meltdowns or challenging behaviour – this is your child’s way of showing you what they are feeling inside and asking for help with very big feelings. For more advice on managing meltdowns read…
  • For parents of teenagers there can be a sense of loss for past Christmas times when you might remember feeling more able to know what your child might want and enjoy. For adolescents it is an ordinary and a healthy part of their development that they might be less interested in spending lots of time with their family. It can help to give young people some choice over what they do and don’t join in with and to involve them in planning this. As with younger children, be aware too of where there might be conflict or situations that are likely to be particularly difficult. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know you are there, whether that is watching a film together or making the most of brief moments of connection in the day. For more information on supporting teenagers read…
  • 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: