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Child and Family Services

Increasing Gratitude and Decreasing Stress During This Holiday Season

Happy Thanksgiving Message

The holidays, like almost everything else this year, will be different due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 1 million COVID-19 cases were reported in the United States over the past week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising people to not travel this Thanksgiving and to have a small celebration at home.

Minnesota Department of Health officials advise “the safest way to celebrate is at home with only the people who live with you and no one else.”

While changes to family traditions are not easy, health experts say it’s the best way to keep your family safe and help curb the spread of the virus.

“This too shall pass,” says Matthew Witham, PhD, manager of Child and Family Services at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare. “It’s certainly challenging this year and we’re being asked to adjust to things and to modify the traditions we hold dear,” he adds.

“This too shall pass,” says Matthew Witham, PhD, manager of Child and Family Services at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare.  

Children Take Emotional Cues from Adults

Witham advises that children take cues from parents and caregivers so it’s especially important to model calm behavior. It’s also a good idea to have a family discussion about why Thanksgiving and other holidays will be different this year. “Parents should focus on why it’s important to make changes to celebrations this year. Children have already probably missed birthday parties, had a different kind of Halloween experience and now we need to prepare them to celebrate the upcoming holidays in a different way,” Witham says.

Two Grateful Emojis“You want to keep these conversations positive and not blame health or political officials,” Witham says. “Explain that we’re all in this together and we want to keep everyone safe. It’s best to focus on positive things like the opportunity for us to be together as a family. Explain how not having distractions like traveling or lots of people in the house can mean more time to bond as a family.”

“It’s an opportunity for children to learn good coping skills,” Witham says. “Adults can teach children to calm themselves by deep breathing. Sometimes sitting quietly next to a child can help them become more calm and regulated.”

Tamping Down Holiday Stress

In the best of circumstances the holidays can be a stressful time for families. Witham advises people to focus on three things to help tamp down the holiday stress:

  1. Give and extend grace. You can’t do it all and it won’t be perfect. Remind yourself that no one is perfect.
  2. Keep it simple. We want to do everything but we can’t. It might be a good idea to focus on fewer activities. This simplifies things and allows you to spend more relaxed quality time as a family.
  3. Start every day new. Let it go. Be in the present moment.

Witham suggests families might want to consider taking the focus off the meal. "That can be helpful," Witham says. "Especially since we can't have big gatherings around a table or share a feast with lots of people." 

Instead, Witham suggests people consider coming up with ways to express gratitude. For example, families could leave “Gratefulness Care Packages” on the doorsteps of people who have helped during this challenging time.

Witham and his family plan to spend part of Thanksgiving doing outdoor activities—if the Minnesota weather cooperates. “Getting out in nature is a good way to enhance your mood and some light exercise can also help to regulate your emotions.”

“Remind children that while the celebrations and traditions may change—your love for them is still the same,” Witham says. “That reassurance can help everyone have a happy holiday.

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