Resources / For families

Q&A: How do you make sure your kids belong during holiday gatherings and conversations?

Kids exchanging holiday gifts
Dominica Fox-DeMarco, MA, NBC-HWC
Dominica Fox-DeMarco, MA, NBC-HWC

Dec 21, 2023

During holiday gatherings, your family might be exposed to new people, foods, places, parenting styles, and more. 

How do your kids interpret this? 

How do we keep them from feeling alienated while teaching them to embrace new things? 

It’s important to talk to your kids at these gatherings. Encourage them to be curious and open to new experiences and ensure that they’re likely to find common ground with just about anyone, if they try. Being welcoming is a lesson that not only helps our children – it helps us too, and makes everyone feel included. 

We sat down with Senior Behavioral Health Coach, Dominica Fox-DeMarco to find out what kids may be feeling during the holidays, what happens when they come upon a new tradition and coping strategies to help them through it.

What can happen during the holidays that might make kids feel that they don't belong? 

1. Assuming a child celebrates a certain holiday.

2. Children going through loss, or divorce may feel grief especially around the holidays if a loved one isn’t present or if the children are around families that remind them of their grief.

3. Gift giving may cause disappointment or set expectations that happiness is the amount of gifts they receive.

4. Parties or celebrations can contribute to overstimulation, and a disrupted sleep schedule. Small talk is usually present also. While it seems innocent, it can actually feel uncomfortable for anxious kids or those that struggle with conversation skills.

5. Performances or recitals can be tough in general for children not wanting to perform in front of others. Sometimes a child may not feel they belong in certain performances if representation of certain cultures aren’t.

6. Holiday foods that don’t honor a child’s sensory needs or cultural background. Judgment of food choices can also be present at gatherings, children may feel criticized for the amount of food they eat or don’t eat.

What differences do children typically notice? (traditions, different holidays/celebrations for different families? religion that they're not used to?) 

1. Favoritism towards certain holidays. Example: Saying Merry Christmas when a child may celebrate Hanukkah, Ramadan or doesn’t observe religious holidays.

2. Others do not recognize a child’s level of comfort in conversation. A child feeling judgment from others if they’re more quiet or celebrating a different holiday from others.

3. Different traditions may involve more alcohol use, staying up later, a variety of different foods, or spending prolonged time with extended family.

How do caregivers prepare for this? What kind of conversations should you have before a large gathering? With both your children AND those who will be at the gathering?

1. Caregivers can prepare for large gathering conversations by role playing conversation skills with the children in their care. Talk through examples of how to respond if they become uncomfortable in the conversation. For example, if a comment is made about a child’s eating habits you might say “In our house we encourage our child to listen to their body's cues.” Modeling healthy boundaries in conversations can be powerful.

2. Discussing a secret hand signal for the child to show their caregiver at the gathering if they feel uncomfortable or anxious.

3. Managing expectations of the child. Allowing the child to have rest at a large gathering if possible, not making the child feel as though they have to be in every activity. 

4. Being clear with those at the gathering beforehand of your child’s needs. If you’re anticipating your child feeling saddened with grief, explain this to the host.

How do we prepare our families for interacting with our children if they are neurodivergent, or struggling in other ways?

1. Letting the family know of your time commitment to respect your child’s needs. It's important to consider the duration of the event. Setting a start time and an end time can feel grounding for your child.

2. Bring familiar items for the child.

3. Consistent check-ins throughout the gathering.

4. Bringing familiar foods if needed.

How do we deal with children feeling different, left out or ostracized once it's happened?

1. Managing your own emotions as a parent by using the tool called Recognize, Pause, Think or R.P.T. Recognize (I’m feeling very reactive right now), pause (take a deep breath and release the emotion with your out breath) and think (what would my best, most thoughtful parenting self look like right now). Trying not to be overly worried can be really powerful for the child. When kids have the added burden of worrying about a parent's worry, it robs them of being able to process and live their lives in a meaningful way. When parents are more grounded and present in their responses with their child, it can help support them with resilience and problem solving as they get older.

2. Full listening of your child’s emotions. Listen to their story. Allowing them to process the story through their language is helpful.  Don’t offer solutions right away or go into problem solving mode. Instead, listen and say words that indicate their feelings are normal and tough and being heard. Such as, “Wow, really?” “Ugh that is SO tough” “Then what happened?” “What did you think at that point?” You’re engaged in the story but not taking it over. After the story is over, ask, “What can I do for you right now?” or “Is there anything in this moment that would make you feel better?” See what they say and if they can’t think of anything you might say, “When I’m feeling like that all I want is a hug.” 

3. Validating a child's emotions during the event and also processing emotions with them once at home. You might say something like, “I know what that family member said probably felt hurtful. How did it make you feel?” Then allow the child to express their emotions and work with them to identify what emotion it made them feel, using age appropriate language. Using a feelings wheel can be a powerful tool to help the child work on identifying emotions.

4. Once your child has processed the situation more and they’re settled, encourage empowerment work. Teach your child they have control over how they perceive things and while they can’t change how people act, they can control their own responses or reactions. Give an example of a time when you made a conscious choice to change the way you saw something.

5. Other examples of skills to work on with your child:

  • Encourage activities outside of the home like sports, art classes, after school activities, church/synagogue/mosque groups, and yearbook or newspaper involvement at school.

  • Encouraging kids to write in journals, draw it out or any other right brain activity is very helpful in processing.

  • Try additional coping strategies.

At the end of the day, communicating with your child early and often is the best strategy for getting through holiday gatherings that may cause anxiety or potentially hurt feelings. Brightline is always here to help with navigating these conversations. Get in touch with us to learn more.