Re-imagined Holidays: Making Positive Memories During a Pandemic (Parents’ Guide)
Dr. Lindsay Malloy, Co-founder of Pandemic Parenting
On Halloween night, I watched Pikachu and a baby duckie (aka, my 5-year-old and 3-year-old) run around gathering miniature candy bars that were falling from the sky. It was raining chocolate (hallelujah) because my neighbor was shooting tiny candy bars into the sky with a leaf blower in a dazzling display of social distancing meets trick-or-treating brilliance. I am a 40-year-old woman, and I was pretty giddy about this, so you can imagine how my kids reacted.
I was also quite moved that night by the many creative efforts of my community to allow children to have some Halloween fun in a safe and socially-distanced way.
With more holidays approaching, pandemic parents are worried about how to create memorable, positive holiday experiences for their children. As both a psychology professor who studies children’s memory and a parent, I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the factors that influence children’s memories – what they forget and what they remember, and what ends up becoming a part of their life story.
The fact is that we don’t remember all the details of our experiences – even the very significant ones. We tend to remember the “gist” of events in our lives – the central components of our experiences and how they made us feel. Eventually, the 2020 holiday season will blend in with others and, for our kids, it will be just one Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc. among many others.
Drawing from our recent Pandemic Parenting webinar with one of the world’s leading experts in memory and family narratives, Dr. Robyn Fivush, here are a few key tips for helping your children create positive holiday memories during the pandemic.
1) Prepare your kids for how the holidays might look this year so they know what to expect.
In general, the more predictability that we can create in this uncertain time, the better it is for kids. Research shows that setting up clear expectations and preparing children for even the most stressful of experiences, such as painful medical procedures, can help them cope. Establishing clear expectations and setting “ground rules” ahead of time can be especially important for children who are prone to anxiety.
You might try approaching these discussions from a place of curiosity, such as asking children to think about other things that have been different during the pandemic and how (e.g., changes at school, wearing masks, social distancing). Then, move into a discussion of how they think the holidays might look different this year and how they feel about it.
2) Don’t assume that your children will be disappointed about the holidays this year – but give them room to be disappointed if need be.
As an adult, you have built memory “scripts” for many types of events in your life. There are scripts for doctor visits, grocery shopping, birthday parties, and, of course, for the holidays. You have long since made up your mind about how the holidays are “supposed” to look – and it probably never involved covering your nose and mouth by wearing a mask when picking up the ham or turkey.
But your children, especially if they are young, likely have more flexible scripts. You might find it upsetting as a parent to see your children standing six feet away and shouting to a masked Santa from behind a plexiglass barrier, for example, but your child may not mind. Make sure that you are not creating a “this is terrible” vibe when your child is excited just to be seeing Santa.
Children pick up on your emotions – even as infants and toddlers. However, if your child is expressing disappointment or discomfort with the way the pandemic holidays are unfolding, let them have and share those feelings. It can be helpful to validate their feelings by saying something like, “I feel really sad about that, too.”
3) Go back to the fundamentals – the “why” behind those holiday traditions.
Recently, world renowned child psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry joined us for a Pandemic Parenting Exchange on building resilience in kids. He reminded us that our children’s core needs are feeling loved and feeling safe – and that those two things should be the highest parenting priority. As my Pandemic Parenting co-founder Dr. Amanda Zelechoski recently said, “You know what kids want even more than toys and games? They want grownups who care about them to play those toys and games with.”
At the heart of most holiday traditions is building and maintaining family connections. I encourage you to check out Dr. Robyn Fivush’s blog on how to do an online family story circle as a novel and meaningful way to build family connections even during this Zoom era (and with lots of science behind it!).
The 2020 holiday season may not be the one that we had envisioned for our families but that doesn’t mean our children can’t or won’t look back on it fondly. It just takes a little adaptability, flexibility, and creativity to reimagine how it can look during a global pandemic.
Lindsay Malloy, Ph.D.
Dr. Lindsay Malloy is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Ontario Tech University, specializing in developmental and forensic psychology. She is the Director of the Development, Context, and Communication Lab and her research addresses how, why, and to whom children and teens disclose negative or traumatic experiences, as well as factors that influence children’s memory, deception, and narratives. She frequently provides expert testimony and consultation related to children’s communication about and memory of difficult events. Dr. Malloy is also a wife and mother of two young children trying to navigate all of the COVID-19 uncertainty with a little help from chocolate and Disney Plus. Learn more about Pandemic Parenting here.