The holidays will be different this year — here's what to say to kids

Meghan Holohan

Like everything in 2020, the holidays are going to be different. As families reconsider traditional gatherings to embrace safe and healthy holidays, they’ll need to talk to their children about the changes. But the conversation might not be as tough as one might imagine.

“Don't assume that your kids are mad about it just because you are. There are plenty of things that we put our kids through family-wise at the holidays because it's the right thing to do,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting and resiliency expert, told TODAY Parents. “But this might be fantastic news for some of your kids.”

That’s why she recommends starting the conversation with questions.

“The first thing is to ask instead of assume,” she said. “The best way into the conversations with kids is usually through questions … Just start off saying 'What are you picturing?' or 'What are you thinking about the holidays?'”

Then parents will learn if their children have secretly been dreading meals with extended family or will really miss all that time spent with second cousins and great aunts and uncles. But this also gives families a chance to be creative. If they’re really missing Thanksgiving with family members because of an aunt’s sweet potato pie, maybe they can organize a food exchange and a Zoom meal, for example.

“What are the feelings that make it feel like the holidays? Is it a warm visit? Togetherness? Is it the lack of obligations, like school and work? Is it the food? Is it the smells?” Gilboa said. “We can often creatively get the same feeling.”

Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, said that she felt impressed by how families took unique approaches to celebrating Halloween in a fun and safe manner. She hopes that people take that spirit and apply it to Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanza celebrations. Like Gilboa, she sees a different holiday season as an opportunity for families to make new and meaningful customs.

“(Families can) just start building new traditions,” Nunez told TODAY Parents. “It’s making a list of some creative ways that we can celebrate the holidays: Is it going to be making cookies every Friday night? Watching holiday TV shows while, eating pizza on Saturday? … Is it making holiday cards instead of actually buying gifts?”

While discussing all the ways to make the holidays special can be fun, it is important for parents to share why this year will be different, including discussing how social distancing, mask wearing and family-only gatherings help stop the spread of COVID-19.

“It's really important to have those openings in these conversations that this is the world we’re living in and what we have to do to keep everybody safe. It's not only us, but it's the entire world that's going through this,” Nunez said.

She also believes it’s important for parents to listen to their children’s concerns and stress that holidays won’t be like this forever.

“We do want reassure them,” she said. “To keep their anxiety and stress levels down and to keep them safe.”

Some families will have to address how the holidays will look different because maybe a parent is out of work or someone in the family is a long-haul COVID-19 survivor. Again, the experts say this can be a time to talk about this as a chance to try something new.

“We’re going to have to find ways to show people how much they matter to us,” Gilboa said. “We have to be more creative for ourselves and ask our kids to decide what is the one thing, or couple little things, that would make you feel how much we love you this year?”

She says talking about this now helps prepare children for other difficult challenges and helps them to be more resilient. Most people have good years and lean years and being honest with children helps them as they grow. Also, fewer holiday obligations might free families for doing things they honestly enjoy instead of feel they have to do.

“Discussing clearly what won’t be and then giving everybody in the family a chance to talk about what to shift toward. What does this make room for?” Gilboa said. “Maybe we can do something this year because we won’t be rushing to different work holiday parties and four different neighborhood events.”

And, if you want to put up decorations now do it.

“When people start putting their Christmas decorations, the mood shifts,” Nunez said. “A lot of people they're starting to decorate their houses so I think it'll be a very festive year in that sense.”