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Taking on the COVID-19 Holidays – Together

children trick or treating

by Kyle Pruett, M.D. Contributing Writer and Goddard School Educational Advisory Board Member

Many of us are feeling uncertain about the holidays this year. Should we pretend everything is normal and take our children trick or treating? (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shared some fun alternatives to trick or treating this year.) What do we do about the winter holidays? Should we continue our traditions and host the annual extended family gatherings? As parents mull over their options, children take notice. They are astute and sensitive to their parents’ emotions and are experts at listening, even when we think they aren’t.

Children have no problem asking direct questions, which often puts us on the spot. If children have overheard someone say, “No Halloween this year,” they will turn to their family for answers. How parents choose to respond is critical because children can quickly tell if their parents are acting as a team or are divided.

Take the following scenario between a child and father as an example of how an answer may signal a divide. A child asks, “Dad, mom says no Halloween this year! Why not?”

Our pretend dad could say any number of things at this point. How and what he decides to say will clue the child into whether mom and dad are on the same page or even in the same book.

Just for fun, choose the best response for our pretend dad from the following options:

  1. The punt – “I don’t know – ask her.”
  2. The challenge – “What? Halloween is definitely happening this year!”
  3. The consensus – “Your mom and I have talked about this. Let’s go get her and discuss it together.”
  4. The dodge – “Not now, kiddo, I’m busy.”
  5. The subject change – “Hey, did you see all of the pinecones on the ground out front?”

The best answer is one that both parents have already agreed upon. It’s paramount to try your best to reach mutual decisions about your family’s safety during the COVID-19 holidays. Children are looking for secure anchorage during this bizarre time, and they need to know that the anchor line is taught, not dragging along.

It’s completely normal for parents to disagree on certain approaches toward parenting. However, they should agree on the best way to keep their families safe. According to recent research by my wife Marsha Kline Pruett, discrepant parental attitudes and behaviors about COVID-19 safety are toxic for children of all ages. If parents want to survive the approaching influx of holidays, they need to pull together on the following non-negotiable topics.

Agree on schedules and routines. By now, your original routines have likely been worn to a nubbin thanks to the disruptive pandemic. Get ahead of the holidays by brainstorming a new daily routine. Be sure to discuss food, hygiene, play, sleep and screen time, and keep the plan flexible so that holiday celebrations don’t destroy the routine.

Loosen up on some discipline. Agree to loosen the reins a little during the holidays, and pick your battles carefully. Letting certain non-harmful behaviors slide will help ease your stress levels during the holidays.

Practice what you will say to your children. Align your messages about how to discuss the holidays and your children’s feelings during COVID-19. “We’ve never had a [insert holiday or ritual] quite like this one. Some things will be the same, and some will be different.” Each parent may choose to empathize different aspects of the conversation, and that’s fine as long as they are actively listening to what their children are feeling.

Model your expectations. Parents should agree on and model the non-negotiables, such as handwashing, wearing a mask, avoiding large gatherings, practicing social distancing and telling someone when you feel sick.

Consider safe socialization. Support reasonable efforts for your children to socialize with their peers and friends. If your child has a friend whose family is just as cautious as yours, it may be okay to arrange a playdate. Virtual playdates are always a safe option but can be tricky for young children with short attention spans. Unfortunately, our protective urges can lead to social isolation for children, which may upset and sadden them more during the holidays.

Share the love. During times of uncertainty and excitement (COVID-19 holidays), children may experience larger-than-life emotions. Sometimes, all they need is an extra big hug and lots of affection. Be sure to praise good behavior when you see it. Say, “You are a terrific teeth brusher!” or “I love how you helped with the laundry today.” Praise does wonders for children’s well-being and mental health.

Along the same lines, work with your partner to focus on any immediate health and safety concerns that may affect the holidays. Other problems that won’t matter afterward aren’t worth your time and energy.

Remember to care for yourself and each other. No one will look after you or you and your partner except yourselves. Take a deep breath, grab a snack or beverage from your secret cabinet, curl up on the couch and unwind. Remember, the holidays are about your families, so make space to relax and enjoy your time together