by Rebecca Bergese
I am delighted to present the wonderful piece that follows by Rebecca Bergese, child psychotherapist. She writes about children, Christmas under new restrictions, and how parents can help their children to deal with the uncertainty and anxiety that these strange and emotional times bring all of us. When I asked her to write about how parents could support their children’s well-being this Christmas, the second lockdown in the UK had just ended, and the announcement of the new variant of Covid was still current news!
As I publish this article, we are already in the Christmas week and reeling from fresh restrictions, travel bans, and the new Tier 4 restrictions in England. If anything, Christmas this year, has the potential for exacerbating the loneliness and pain that the “festive season” brings for so many: Tens of thousands of families in the UK will miss a loved one who passed away during the last year – with the latest figure of more than 67000 deaths from Covid-19 alone. Worldwide, the figure now stands at 1.7 million. And yet, the Christmas message is one of hope. It is also a message for and about children: Although this Christmas may be unlike any other in living memory, we have the potential to make it memorable, to make it count! Rebecca’s piece speaks to all of us who are parents of, especially, young children. She presents her insights into what might be happening for our children: Their uncertainties and questions about Covid and the festive season, grandparents, and even about Santa touching their presents! And she shares her insights into how you can help them to feel safer and more secure this Christmastide.
If you, like me and most other parents, sometimes find yourself unsure of what to say and do to address your child’s insecurities and questions, this piece is for you. If you found it helpful, please tell us by sending your comments using the form below. We’d love to hear from you. You can also like the piece by clicking on the button below the text, and share with friends and family.
Finally from me: Merry Christmas from everyone at The Psychology Consultancy, we hope your festive season is rich with meaning, and that 2021 bring you all you hoped for!
December 2020 Dr. O
Not Like Other Christmases
We are all too aware of living through exceptional times. The run up to Christmas is always a pressured time for parents, and this year may be different in character, but will be just as stressful for many. Parents who are at work may have the strain of deadlines before the year’s end, as well as planning for family festivities. Many working at home will not find being home with the family has the same meaning this year, and for those not able to work, the approach of the festivities may fill them with dread. We could all do with a holiday from the uncertainty and the worry, yet Christmas is hardly an emotional or physical holiday for adults , especially now.
Happy parents are the foundation for happy and secure children.
Happy parents are the foundation for happy and secure children. It is sometimes hard to believe that our lives as adults can be having so much impact on our young children and ‘happy’ might not be realistic in the present circumstances. This year is demanding for everyone, so how can we make the best of it for ourselves and our children ?
Our memories and our dreams shape the perfect Christmas in our minds. Often there are specific traditions which are treasured by families and add up to ‘Christmas’. One of the joys of living with young children is the chance to experience the excitement and astonishment, if only vicariously. The considerable work is tempered by memories of our delight as youngsters. Of course, not everyone is so lucky, and then the effort of finding presents, decorating the house, preparing festive treats is enormous without the benefit of having received the special love that Christmas ‘work’ involves for adults.
Whatever your beliefs, it is difficult to ignore the festival that celebrates a new birth and in particular, the birth of a baby who is considered by some to be the most significant baby ever born. What could be lovelier than a new baby? But brothers and sisters of new babies are not always thrilled by the new arrival, or their mother’s lack of attention to them. Jealousy is not only felt by the children in a baby’s family either. No surprise really that Christmas can bring out painful feelings, adding to the mixture of Christmas emotions. Children used to be encouraged to be ‘good’ if they wanted presents, but actually, it might be quite reasonable to feel worried and doubtful about whether one will be remembered, appreciated, rewarded. Will they notice me at all? Has my cousin got a bigger doll because they love her more? For us, this can seem like an ungrateful or selfish attitude, but young children are still working out their status and their place in the world. When they are worried they often resort to lively boisterous behaviour, preferring to be the naughty child who is remembered, than the angel who is forgotten.
The Old and the New
Of the winter festivals, one is the ancient ritual that marks the Winter Solstice. As the sun halts and begins its journey back towards us, we bolster ourselves against the cold and darkness of the world with rituals and traditions that remind us of the sun’s beautiful light and the return of growth and new beginnings. It seems no coincidence that we light candles and fill our houses with bright twinkling lights. We guard ourselves against the darkness outside, but perhaps the darkness of farewells and losses in our hearts too. This is a time of nostalgia, of memories of loved ones past and present, and of dreams of a secure family, maybe something we never had. This year in particular, the absence of loved family or friends will bring us sorrow. It is always a season of heightened feelings, especially now, of joy and gratitude, but also jealousy, sadness, loneliness too. As adults we try to shield children from the more painful aspects of reality, and rightly so, but they too can find the missing relatives hard to endure. Traditionally in Britain, some of these powerful feelings are kept at bay over the festive period, either through a busy calendar of social events usually involving food and alcohol, or for children, though the distraction of new toys, and entertainments. This time, these supports are not necessarily available to us.
Some of us will be alone this Christmas, without the support of partner or relatives to share the preparations. There will also be financial hardships that weigh heavily on parents at this time with its emphasis on wonderful gifts. It might be tempting to reassure children and find other ways to distract them from the inevitable worries that health concerns, financial insecurity, or lack of companionship cause us all. There is no harm in making use of entertainments on tap like computer games, or watching more TV than usual, as long as it does not completely squeeze out the space for a child to express sadness, anxiety, frustration and equally exuberance and happiness . Above all to find some moments when they can have the full attention of a parent or carer.
Guilt free parenting
Most parents experience guilt at some time or other, and some will tell you it is part of the job. With the approach of this strange Christmas, parents might feel tired, worried and stressed themselves, which in turn can stir up guilt for not being the happy, cheery and jovial parent they would like to be. Young children are very sensitive to the feelings of their parents and often conclude that their parents’ happiness is their responsibility. They are reassured by the appearance of the parent they know, and troubled by changes in their carer’s demeanour. Parents, aware of this, try hard to conceal the distress , or attempt to deny the reality of their worries. We would like to protect our little ones from unnecessary pain or worry, and so we cover up what we are feeling. Inevitably this adds to the tension and our own feelings of being drained . Children often gain a huge amount from a little authentic exchange with grown-ups. A few minutes of genuine interest in their newly acquired cycling skill, or listening to them play the recorder with full attention helps children to feel that they are important to their carers and their experiences have value, and with that they are reassured that they will belong.
Is it safe to be happy this Christmas?
Young children will often voice their ideas and questions quite un-self-consciously. If they have had an experience of loving and interested parents they will feel free to express what is going on inside them. So when your children ask about Santa, or express worries about how safe it might be for him to visit the house, or worry about touching presents that have been handled by Santa and his elves, it is relatively easy to reassure them in words that are suitable for their age.
Older children might be troubled by more realistic concerns. Will their parents be able to give them presents? How can they give presents when they are not allowed to go to the shops? How will Granny have Christmas dinner if she can’t go out to the supermarket? Sometimes children will voice a worry, or some just quietly struggle with it. So if your child expresses a worry, try to listen out for it and respond just as you would to an adult speaking to you. Respond as honestly and straightforwardly as you can even though it is tempting to offer soothing distraction or deny the scale of the problem. The challenge is to find a balance between allowing a child to feel the worry , yet give them a sense that it is an ordinary part of life, and usually we manage to recover despite painful feelings.
Some families will be suffering bereavement or isolation over the holiday period. Nothing is harder than the feeling of being excluded from warmth, companionship and company. For some of us, turning to alternative contact can be a source of comfort and support in the absence of real companions. As a support this will be invaluable, as long as we are not trying too hard to block out the loss. For adults and children, having a chance to connect with others can be vital. One of the positive developments of the present pandemic has been the increase in groups and societies that offer contact to one another. Although this is often a provision for adults, there are many online groups, clubs, and interactive sessions for children too.
The loss of the familiar and the arrival of undesirable new experience upsets us all, children included. So although we might have to let go of many treasured rituals, visits, activities or meetings this Christmas, it is also a moment when we can evolve new ways of enjoying ourselves, of celebrating the renewal of the light, and the joy of being part of our tribe of human beings. We can help ourselves and our children by trying to free ourselves from comparison with other Christmases, and also freeing ourselves from an idea that it should be only lovely and happy. It can be a huge relief to children to discover that their parents or carers feel worried, frustrated, angry, but can also feel happy, energetic and relaxed. Strangely the two groups of feelings are connected and families who feel free to express both parts or sides of themselves often have a sense of resilience and security. Allowing oneself to be imperfect and with it to be with the children this Christmas might make it quite special after all.
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