Common Holiday Responses (pre-Covid)
Even though many of us may treasure the magic of the holidays, we may also connect to the reality that they can be a stressful time. Handling the logistics of planning and paying for holiday travel and festivities can be challenging. Our families may let us down in various ways, and we may experience feelings of sadness and loss. On top of that, we may feel guilt if we’re not as cheerful or connected as we think we “should” be. With all of these factors in play, common responses to the holiday season (in pre-Covid times) include:
Common Holiday Responses during Covid
During the pandemic, responses to the holiday season may be similar but amplified. You may have experienced the holidays a different way in the past, and now be confronting some difficult emotions for the first time. There’s a lot of disappointment and stress going around right now, and all of that factors into our response to this already difficult season. You may also experience a duality of emotions—that is, having two seemingly conflicting feelings at the same time. Some things you may be feeling include:
-Relief: You may feel relieved that you don’t have to go places and participate in things that have been stressful in the past.
-Guilt: You may feel guilty about feeling relief. It’s important to remind yourself that a duality of emotions is natural, and you can love your family while also allowing yourself to feel relieved that you don’t have to see them.
-Toxic Positivity: There’s a lot of false or forced positivity going around these days, stemming from the attitude that negative emotions are inherently bad and should be pushed away. You may be hearing statements like “At least you still have your job” or “You’re so lucky that ____; some people haven’t been as fortunate,” and that can easily make you feel both uncomfortable and guilty for not being “grateful enough.”
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” —Viktor Frankl, 1946
This quote comes from Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, and reminds us that our response to the holidays and the meaning we make out of the holidays is within our control.
What Can We Do?
Shift the lens and narrative of the holidays. This doesn’t mean you have to create false cheer or over-the-top positivity; it may be something more neutral, along the lines of “This is going to be okay, and we are going to figure it out.” Evaluate how you’re utilizing self-talk—that is, what your internal narrative is telling you—because it can have a powerful effect on your mood and overall outlook.
In shifting the narrative, it can help you pay attention to the following aspects of this unprecedented holiday season:
Freedom. Consider this year a unique opportunity to create a new experience or tradition for your family. It’s a time to be creative and flexible. Focus on what could work and what you might want to try, and find the freedom in that.
Building resiliency. Pushing through these circumstances builds resiliency—a necessary skill for adults and children alike. Right now, we are providing a safe space for our kids to process through their grief, anger, and frustration. We are helping them to understand that they have the ability to handle hard experiences. It’s better for them to build this skill now rather than later, at a time when they may not be surrounded by people they trust.
Growth. Developing your emotional muscles provides an opportunity for growth and expanded empathy for others. This can include increasing or shifting intimacy with others; for instance, the intimacy you have with your family may be changing because you’re having to make difficult decisions and express feelings that weren’t in play before. It may be liberating to take this opportunity for honesty and directness with your family around what you’re feeling. It develops deeper understanding of others.
Re-evaluate and create reasonable expectations. The more aligned we are with the reality of who we are and who our families are, the more we can set ourselves up for a good outcome. Here are some steps to build a picture of your holiday season that is doable and positive for you:
-Identify what a successful time with your family looks like before you enter the holiday.
-Ask: How obtainable is this idea? What is the capacity of your family to achieve this?
-Eliminate healing fantasies. That means wishful thinking like “Everything would have been okay if we could all be together.” Remind yourself that, in reality, people don’t always change, and the same challenging dynamics or divides that existed in the past would still exist even if you were magically able to gather with your whole family this year.
-Work toward acceptance that this holiday season will look and feel different.
Have compassion for yourself. This is not easy. There are a multitude of losses to contend with this holiday season, and it’s natural for them to weigh on you. When you’re down, allow yourself to feel that way rather than pushing away negative emotions. It’s an appropriate and normative response to such a stressful situation.
Try to identify the emotions underneath the behavior/words of your children. If your kids are upset about a particular thing, consider whether it’s actually that specific thing causing their reaction, or whether they may be responding to a larger undercurrent of emotion around the season and the ongoing uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic. Kids don’t always have the words to say “I’m lonely” or “I miss school,” so try to search for and identify those underlying feelings when you can.
Attempt to respond in a developmentally appropriate way to your children. Depending on their age, you may want to adjust your response and how much you want to take on for them vs. encouraging them to take on independently.
Acknowledge what’s going on in a real way, but also offer some soothing. If your kids see that you’re feeling sad or upset but you insist that everything’s fine, that can be distorting for them. Instead, let them know what’s happening while also providing reassurance: “Mom’s sad, but it will be okay.” This helps let them know that everyone experiences hard feelings, but that we have the power to work through them.
Expand upon self-care. Now is a good time to look at what’s working and what’s not in terms of your self-care routine. Aspects to consider include:
-Digital diet (What’s your media intake? Are you doomscrolling more than usual?)
-Breathwork/self-soothing skills (for guidance, check out this article from the New York Times: “Breathe. Exhale. Repeat: The Benefits of Controlled Breathing.”)
-Creating structure/routines that help contain anxiety and create a reasonable form of control
When to seek additional help. If the intensity or frequency of difficult emotions seems to be interfering with your life, you may want to seek professional help. Things to look out for include:
-Appetite and/or sleep disturbances
-Rapid mood swings
-Chronic feelings of hopelessness and/or suicidal thoughts
-Urges to self-harm (binging/purging, cutting, etc.)
-Sustained loss of interest in activities that were once pleasurable
-Increased dependence on substances that interferes with overall functioning
-Increased restlessness, tenseness, and/or hyper-vigilance
-Physical manifestations such as headaches, body aches, pain, or palpitations
Park Slope Parents has a list of member-reviewed mental health professionals here.
How can I take the pressure off of myself to create the “perfect holiday experience”?
Try to reframe the experience by remembering that the important part—and the part you can control—about the holidays is less about doing specific activities or carrying out certain rituals and more about creating togetherness, intimacy, and honest expression with the people you love. If you find yourself reaching for a way to make the moment “perfect,” try stepping back, taking stock of the present reality, and finding concrete and doable ways to contribute that are reasonable. Look at what ideas you may be holding onto that are not serving you, like “This has to be perfect, or else.” Challenge yourself: What is the bad thing that’s going to happen if it’s NOT perfect? While it’s important to let yourself feel disappointment and sadness, it can also help to bring a sense of perspective to the situation and remember that a less-than-perfect situation does not have to mean a catastrophe.
How can I manage expectations around what I “should” be doing this season, whether it’s creating an elaborate celebration or spending hours volunteering?
Ask yourself where those expectations are coming from—they’re usually internal, and acknowledging that fact can help you take some of the pressure off. Take time to consider how much time and energy you want to spend on different activities this season, and then plot out how you can put that into practice. Consider the short-term and long-term future when making these decisions—for instance, “How will it make me feel tomorrow if I choose to spend six hours volunteering at a food pantry? How will it make me feel when I look back on it in six months?” Ideally, you can choose the route that brings the most positive outcome in both the short and long term.
Further reading if your children are experiencing heightened anxiety right now:
-The Atlantic, “Parenting Kids with Anxiety”
-SPACE Treatment, which stands for Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions and is a parent-based treatment program for children and adolescents with anxiety, OCD, and related problems.
If you'd like to reach out to Joey Ackerman, LCSW-R, here is her contact information:
68 Jay Street #409
Brooklyn, NY 11201