Ask the Expert: How Do I Manage My Kids’ Holiday Expectations this Year?

How can grown-ups explain to kids how different this holiday season will be? We asked two child psychologists for their tips. The major takeaway? Be honest and fair to yourself.

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The holidays will no doubt be different this year for many families. Whether it’s not visiting with grandparents locally, not traveling to see other family, or not giving as many gifts, parents and kids will have to make adjustments.

Honesty is the best policy for talking to kids about how things will be different this year. It’s also essential for grown-ups to be kind to themselves.

We put questions to two child psychologists on how to cope this year and how to talk to your kids about what to expect. Dr. Deborah Pontillo is a pediatric psychologist and director at San Diego Kids First/San Diego Therapy First. Dr. Lisa Damour is a psychologist, author of the bestsellers “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood” and “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls,” and is the cohost of the podcast “Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting.”

Q: As the holidays approach this year, how should parents plan for what will be different?

Dr. Pontillo: As much as they can, parents should try to create a schedule and set up expectations, so kids have clear predictable activities and routines. Even during holiday break, routine is still important, so kids know when are we getting up, when are we having outside time, family time, and keeping schedules consistent through the holidays can help kids a lot in terms of anxiety and behavioral challenges. Those are exacerbated when expectations aren’t clear. You don’t have to be an army, but the flow of the house should be the same.

Dr. Damour: First of all, for kids, they’re having the right reaction if they’re feeling upset, so you have to make space for those feelings. So much of the enjoyment of the holidays is the repetition of traditions, so making the foods we always have, listening to special holiday music, and under normal conditions when we start to engage in those traditions, they’re fun, but they also bring back pleasant memories from previous holidays. Those traditions may feel much more fraught this year and parents should be prepared for that, which is not to say they shouldn’t make those regular foods even for a smaller crowd, put on favorite music, but they should be prepared for the possibility that those familiar elements will underscore how different this year is, and maybe for some kids make a fine point of this year being a sad shadow of those past holidays. Instead, creativity should come to the rescue. This is a different kind of holiday, so it’s not a bad idea to celebrate it in a different kind of way. Maybe you can have a holiday frisbee game, or a movie marathon. What parents should do is seek fun and perhaps novel ways to make the day special with an approach that might be both comforting and also enjoyable in its own right. That will take some of the sting out of what’s missing.

“We can’t do it all, we can’t, so it’s OK to ease up on yourself …. This is all temporary, so do as much as you can and don’t punish yourself.”

— Dr. Deborah Pontillo

Q: How should parents start a discussion with their kids about what will be different?

Dr. Pontillo: Families have likely been talking for six months and more about the changing world, with virtual learning, parents working at home, things being closed, trips being canceled, everyone’s world has shifted so much. So this would be a continuation of the same discussion.

If you have something like Christmas dinner, and you’re used to having families coming over, you have to sit down and talk about what to expect. Older kids can talk about it, and younger kids can draw things out with a schedule and calendar. You can lay things out in terms of what to expect and give your kids the opportunity to contribute wherever feasible. For example, if you’re only going to have three people at the table this year, you can ask your kids how should it look and how to make it special, if you’re going to have Zoom time with family, how to make that special. For preschool to second grade, visuals really help, so you can draw out the table and what it will look like, draw out calendars, plans, or what are the different choices for an activity.

Try to acknowledge, validate and label their feelings, you don’t want to ever dismiss or trivialize or minimize how kids are feeling. We feel them too as parents, we can’t get together with our parents, and so we can teach kids that disappointment is a normal part of life; we don’t want to prevent our kids from feeling disappointment, so allowing for disappointment and sadness is healthy, we normalize and then think about how can we make it better, create new traditions this year.

Dr. Damour: As always, kids will take their cues from their parents and if the parent is feeling helpless and hopeless about the disruption to the holiday, that won’t help the kids feel better. If the parent can speak openly about sadness and then pivot to an inventive 2020 version of the holiday, usually kids will follow their lead.

Q: Do you have suggestions for how families can plan out different holiday activities this year?

Dr. Pontillo: Even little kids know things will be different. They’ll know we’re not traveling, we haven’t seen grandma in six months, so it will make sense we’re not going to see her this year at the holidays. The earlier the better, if families can start talking about plans and brainstorm how to make it special, then as you get closer to the holiday, you can start making it more concrete, laying out specifically what you will do.

You could make a new recipe book, plan our own menu, build our own Christmas fort, think of creative ways to find new fun unique traditions, which we’ll remember in future years. You’ll still be making memories that can be treasured, and you’ll show kids how to have hope by focusing on the positives.

Dr. Damour: This might be a good place for the parent to come up with a bunch of ideas and ask the kid to come up with ideas, and then you can decide together what makes sense. This is the opportunity to give kids a sense of control and say, what do you think we can do? Feeling agency helps kids feel better.

“It’s important to be direct and honest with kids, [because] they’ll tune into their parents’ level of stress and anxiety.”

— Dr. Lisa Damour

Q: Families may be feeling financial impacts this year. How should parents talk about that with their kids?

Dr. Pontillo: With honesty. You can say, ‘we’re unable to do this this year because things have been different, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to in the future. This year we need to be more creative about how to celebrate.’ Don’t make kids feel like they need to worry, just be matter-of-fact, say, this year we need to save more, so we might do a family gift instead of individual gifts, or homemade gifts, we might bake cookies for everyone instead of having all our family and friends over for dinner.

You never want to say, ‘we’re in trouble this year kids, if we don’t save money we’re not going to make it to March,’ but we know that teaching kids about money as early as preschool is important. So you can talk about it as, ‘we’re choosing to be cautious this year, we’re going to buy what we need so we can have more down the road.’ Kids can worry unnecessarily, so you can reassure them that this is not a catastrophic outcome, just because things are changing this year. Parents don’t realize if they’re worried, it comes across to the kids, so they should be self aware of how they come across when they have the discussion, so even if you are worried, you won’t let them know.

Dr. Damour: It’s important to be direct and honest with kids, [because] they’ll tune into their parents’ level of stress and anxiety. So it can be having a conversation about a simpler holiday, having to make hard choices over the holiday. However the parent feels about it, it’s probably easier for kids to accept the news if parents can present it in a tender and matter-of-fact way instead of seeming openly distressed about it themselves.

That can mean saying something along the lines of, ‘as you know I’ve been out of work, which means we have less money, which means we’ll be buying fewer gifts, so one thing that will be different this year is we won’t have as many presents. But here’s what won’t be different: we’ll enjoy time together as a family, and there will be a lot of love and a lot of fun, and we can count our many blessings and think about what we can do on behalf of others.

Q: Any other advice for parents this year?

Dr. Pontillo: We’ve been coaching parents to be kind to themselves, to have self compassion. They’re feeling guilty because kids are on more screen time, or they’re working so they can’t help kids as much. We can’t do it all, we can’t, so it’s OK to ease up on yourself and know that no child is going to suffer because you allowed them more screen time than you’d like. This is all temporary, so do as much as you can and don’t punish yourself.

Dr. Damour: This year is also an opportunity to talk with kids about what sacrifice means, and that part of being a member of a community and a responsible citizen is to recognize when it’s time to make sacrifices on behalf of the greater good. The decision to have a canceled or severely paired back holiday can also be framed as a way for a child to feel they’re helping on a broader scale and doing the right thing, and that should and can be a source of pride. We can talk about sacrifices having a painful aspect of giving up something we really want and a positive aspect of knowing that we’re doing the right thing on behalf of other people.

To help kids understand, you can look to children’s books about sacrifice and the greater good, thinking about other people’s interests (Damour recommends “The Gift of the Magi,” or kids books based on the short story by Leo Tolstoy “Three Questions.” The version by Jon J Muth has beautiful illustrations and explains the concepts in an engaging way for kids).