How to Have a Realistic, But Joyful, Holiday

Updated November 7, 2020

Family Hugging in KitchenThe holidays can be a time of wonder, joy and togetherness, especially for children. But they can also be a time of stress, worry or sadness. There’s something about the holidays that can magnify difficulties as we take stock of the year and compare it to expectations. This is especially true for those who have a child who’s ill or injured.

For many reasons, you may not be able to do everything you’ve done to celebrate in the past. You may be too emotionally spent or overwhelmed. There can also be physical limitations or health concerns.

However, that does not mean your holiday is doomed, or that you should just skip it this year. There are ways to accommodate your current circumstances and still have a wonderful season. It just takes some open communication, planning and creativity.

Planning the Holidays with an Ill or Injured Child

So, what can you do to help your family adjust during the holidays after a child’s diagnosis, while in treatment or during recovery? Here are 4 steps to help you keep what’s important, let go of what’s not, and make everyone feel loved, counted and heard.

1.     Hold a Family Planning Meeting for the Holidays

First and foremost, it’s important to be honest and upfront with your child(ren). Explain that while you cherish your holiday traditions, this year will be a little different. Give them space to express their feelings about this, without judging or trying to make it “all better”.

Then reassure them that while some things will change, you can still have a great holiday. Have a discussion about what traditions are most important, allowing each family member to share the activity they’d really like to keep. This will help your child(ren) feel heard, and that they had some choice in the matter, even while everything around them feels out of control.

Then make your plan. If it’s possible to do everything, great! If not, go on to step two.

2.     Brainstorm Alternatives Together for a Realistic Celebration

Silver GiftsChange is hard, whether you are 5 or 50. And with family traditions it can be even harder. However, some things simply aren’t possible, especially if it risks the health and safety of one of your family members.

If a certain tradition isn’t feasible, engage your child(ren) in coming up with alternatives. Ask what exactly it is about the activity that they cherish. Is it the music? A certain food? The fact that you are all together? Then try to recreate that part in a more realistic manner.

For instance, every year you might travel to a light show but this year it’s too far and one of your children cannot be outside for long periods of time. After a little discussion, you find out what your child really loves are the bright lights and special treat they get at the end. To keep this tradition alive, consider having a few of those treats sent to your home. Or cook them together! Then drive around the neighborhood or scout out local locations known for their amazing lights. It won’t be the exact same, but you can still spend time together and help your child feel their wishes count.

3.     Allow for Complicated Emotions Around the Holidays 

The holidays can be incredibly joyful, but they are also a difficult time for many, especially those in the midst of a challenging time. It can be hard not to compare present circumstances to the past or some ideal of perfection.

You and your children are going to feel sad, angry, disappointed or even just plain annoyed some of the time. That’s okay, that’s normal. Those feelings can live side by side with gratitude, excitement and joy. What’s important is that you make room for them, and then allow them to pass.

How can you help the rest of your family members manage these feelings? Be a supportive listener, reflecting back what they are saying and helping children name their emotions. While your first instinct will be to try to make them feel better, it’s important not to dismiss or “Pollyanna” the situation. What can be helpful is validating their experience and giving them room to process.

Throughout these conversations, it’s important not to make promises you cannot keep. It can be tempting to say next year will be different (and it may). But if your child’s prognosis is unclear or they have a chronic illness, you need to be honest and realistic. Otherwise your child(ren) may feel worse later on or betrayed.

It can also be helpful to share your own feelings and the ways you cope. This normalizes their experience and gives you a chance to model positive ways to deal with strong emotions – an important life skill and building block for resilience. Talk about how when you’re sad, you like to journal or go for a walk. Then help them come up with ideas for what they might do.

For more tips on talking with your child and helping them cope, read How to Share Bad News with Your Child and visit the Children page for their age.

4.     Let the Rest Go and Enjoy a Doable Celebration

Cheers over table at holiday mealNow that you have identified the truly important things and have made a plan with the whole family’s input, you can let the rest go. Have a favorite restaurant or grocery store cater the holiday meal. Go light on the decorations, or ask a friend to do them for you. (There are also professionals who come to you!) Use online shopping for presents and skip the company party. You may even tell extended family that the get-together just isn’t happening this year. They may be disappointed but should understand.

You need to do what’s right for your family, and that includes you. Do so guilt-free! So often we pressure ourselves to do-it-all and be-it-all. But that is not what the holidays are about. What matters most of all is that you all are caring for each other and doing the best you can. The rest, that’s just details.

Whatever is beautiful. Whatever is meaningful. Whatever brings you joy. May it be yours this holiday season and throughout the coming year. Happy holidays from all of us at CopingSpace and Ryan’s Case for Smiles.


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