How to Support Kids Whose Families Have Changed
By: Dr. Donna Gaffney, Dr. Irwin Sandler, and Dr. Sharlene Wolchik
Some people—especially those grieving the loss of a loved one or dealing with the fallout of a divorce—may feel the absence of an important family member intensely during the holiday season. Kids are particularly affected when families face an emotionally charged holiday. If there are children in your family coping with the absence of a loved one, there are steps you can take to help them feel better. Starting these conversations can be hard, but they are an important way to show children that their family can celebrate together in new and meaningful ways.1
Ask for their help making holiday plans
Talking with children about how they feel about the holiday—and asking them what they want to do to celebrate—sends a powerful message that their ideas and feelings matter. Consider scheduling a family meeting about four weeks before the holidays. Start with a simple question: What should we do for the holidays this year? Everyone may not have the same answer. People may have to compromise. You may want to continue traditions, or start new ones. But including the children in the decision strengthens their bond with you and the rest of their family. Communicate your family’s decision to your extended family, so everyone knows what you and your kids want.
Make time for togetherness
At their best, holiday celebrations are about more than Grandma’s closely guarded stuffing recipe or opening presents in our pajamas. They make our family bonds stronger.2 Research suggests that spending special time together helps us communicate better and makes us feel safe and connected, especially when life feels harder than usual.3 The effects of this togetherness can change our brain’s chemistry: we release oxytocin (a chemical that helps us bond with others) when we interact with someone we love and trust, and oxytocin enhances our sense of empathy, allowing us to understand others’ emotions and helping us feel more connected and compassionate.4
It’s especially important for families that are bereaved, dealing with divorce, or facing other disruptive changes to connect with their loved ones, including extended family members and friends. Togetherness doesn’t have to be elaborate, expensive, or time-consuming. A little goes a long way. Your kids can help you make a plan. Ask them to write down ideas for get-togethers—all ideas welcome—and post the list in your home. Go online together or check your local newspaper to find fun activities in the community or opportunities to volunteer. Giving back to others is a terrific way to bring your family closer together.
Make sure gifts are meaningful
It’s tempting to shower kids with gifts or treats during a tough holiday season, but that won’t make feelings of sadness or loss go away. Instead, select meaningful gifts—and consider giving gifts of experiences, rather than toys. Studies show that activities and experiences connect the gift-giver to the receiver more than material gifts do.5 And gifts that relate to your child’s interests or talents, like dance classes or tickets to a sports event, show that you appreciate who they are.
You can also help children select gifts for others. Recognizing and celebrating others can have benefits not only for our relationships, but also for ourselves.6 Start with a simple question: “Who helped you this year?” Let the kids come up with small gifts they can buy or make for those helpers. Have them add a handwritten note expressing their gratitude. They can dictate it to you if they’re too young to write it themselves.
Connect with the past
Research suggests that hearing family stories—whether about our parents when they were kids or ancestors from generations ago—can help children feel a sense of connection with their own history. It helps create a sense of belonging and identity, which in turn reduces stress and fosters security.7
The holidays are filled with opportunities for sharing stories. Reminisce about how you celebrated as a kid. Try making a favorite family recipe together. Pull out old photos and videos. Share classic family stories. It can help your kids feel more connected with their relatives, including those who have passed away but are still remembered and celebrated.
Acknowledge the empty chair at the table
Every family’s situation is different. If a family member isn’t there this holiday, ask the children how they want to honor that person. It’ll help them understand that their feelings matter. Children whose parents are divorcing may fear that their holidays will be ruined. They may worry that they won’t see cherished family members—grandparents, cousins—like they used to. Give them the gift of connecting with both sides of their family, if possible. Here’s one way to do that: Long before the holiday, work out a plan. Introduce to your children the notion of sharing holiday celebrations, and make it clear that you support them spending time with all the people they love. If it’s physically impossible for them to see both parents, set up video chats or phone calls. Let them know when the communication will happen—if possible, early in the day, to prevent anxiety over whether the conversation will really occur. Being in touch a couple times during the day and sending pictures can help kids feel connected to the parent who is not physically present.
After a family member passes away, it’s important to recognize the place they will continue to hold in the family. Maintaining bonds with a parent who died is absolutely vital for kids.8 Help strengthen these bonds by doing a special activity or making a donation in honor of the parent who has passed. Selecting a meaningful decoration for the tree or mantel is another way of keeping memories alive.9
Take time to reflect after the holidays
After the holidays, hold a family meeting and ask your children how they think things went and what they want to do differently next year. Set aside 45 minutes or so and have the meeting in a comfortable, quiet place without distractions—no cell phones, no TV. Have everyone write a couple of things they liked and a couple of things they want to change next year. Talk through the ideas and save the lists, so you can look back on them next year. Above all, be upfront with your kids: this year is different than how the holidays used to be, and you want to know how they feel about it.
Supporting kids through the holidays can mean rethinking what a successful holiday looks like. You and your children have experienced a huge change. It may take a while to decide what you want your holidays to look like from now on. But by having open conversations, encouraging meaningful time with family and friends, giving and receiving thoughtful gifts, and finding ways to honor loved ones who aren’t with you any more, you’ll give your children an experience that offers its own rewards.