Tips to help children understand a socially distant holiday

  • December 17, 2020
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When people who love each other can’t be together, it’s heartbreaking. And when a child is too young to understand a prolonged cut-off from a beloved relative or friend, everyone hurts.However, the pandemic — particularly the upcoming holidays — actually is an opportunity to speak frankly with your young children about the big emotions they feel.

Consider the following points as you help young children manage their emotional reactions and guide them through the challenges your family will face during the upcoming weeks and months:

  • Talk to children so they can understand – As you engage in these conversations, keep in mind your child’s age and development stage. Make sure you use words they understand and help them to identify their emotions. For example, you might say, “It’s frustrating when we can’t get together with friends during the holidays.” Or “It’s disappointing that we can’t have our annual visit with cousins this year.” Or “I know you feel sad because you can’t see grandma this Thanksgiving.”
  • Validate emotions – Allow your child to lead the discussion, validate his or her emotions, and show empathy. You might share some of your feelings with your children, too. For example, you might say, “I miss grandma, and I feel sad when I can’t see her, too.”
  • Welcome a child’s questions – Encourage your children to ask questions about this year’s holidays and the ongoing pandemic. You want to make them feel heard and reassure them that their feelings matter.
  • Answer difficult questions – If you don’t have answers, say so. It’s important for your children to learn how to tolerate uncertainty. These conversations help your children to reduce anxiety and build resilience.
  • Manage expectations – Make sure you explain exactly what your children can expect this holiday season. You might say, “This year will be different. No, grandma won’t be here for Thanksgiving, but we will Zoom call while we’re eating dinner so you can see her.”
  • Understand this situation is temporary – Assure your young children that, although the pandemic feels like it will last forever, one day our lives will change and we will be able to routinely visit our loved ones again. The world is a scary place for little ones, especially since they don’t have much understanding about what will happen in their lives. Try to give them information so they feel less fearful and more in control of their situation and their feelings.
  • Create new holiday traditions – Discuss the opportunity to make some positive changes to our new normal. Ask your children for suggestions. Slow down, play games, read books, cook together. Find new ways to connect and play together as a family.                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Finally, the upcoming holidays are an opportunity to have important conversations and to create a different, memorable celebration. Try to emphasize the positive in this unique experience. If you are successful, you may discover that you’ve not only created healthier ways of relating to your young children, but you also have a whole new set of rituals your family will enjoy after the pandemic is long gone.


Chicago-based writer Fern Schumer Chapman has written several award-winning books. Her memoir, Motherland, is a popular choice for book clubs. Her latest picture book, Happy Harper Thursdays: A Grandmother’s Love for Her Granddaughter during the Coronavirus, explains family separation to children. Her other works, Is It Night or Day?, Like Finding My Twin, Stumbling on History, and Three Stars in the Night Sky are used in middle and high school classrooms.