With the news about a massive COVID surge dominating headlines, it’s looking like there will be all kinds of restrictions through the holiday season. Healthcare professionals are recommending that people avoid travel and gatherings for Thanksgiving, which means millions of families will not see extended family members. Parents need to be ready to talk with kids about not seeing their extended family members during this time. That will understandably be disappointing to kids, and challenging for younger children to process.
As a mom and professional working with children, I totally understand that they have been cooped up, home from school, and out of their regular activities for several months. I’m hearing about (and seeing) the anxiety, stress, hyperactivity and restlessness in children and families in my practice. As parents grasp for solutions, children tend to have too much screen time that can lead to irritability and isolation.
Parents are also stressed, and may feel like they have maxed out their go-to activities for keeping kids busy. I know this Thanksgiving (and possibly Christmas!) conversation will be difficult. As the next few weeks unfold, adults should expect that children may exhibit increased frustration or sadness (which often comes out in various behaviors) as traditions are disrupted. The good news is that there are ways to get ahead of these things, and some great holiday activities to support kids’ physical and mental health during this time.
When breaking the news to children about holiday changes, it’s important to acknowledge and accept whatever feelings they express. Be ready for them to tell you they are sad, angry, disappointed, or whatever else. Kids need to know that the adults in their lives can handle their strong feelings. Empathize with them, and let them know that you are also feeling sad or disappointed, and it’s normal to have those emotions. Give them some time to allow the information to sink in, and then shift into problem solving mode to help them picture what the holidays can and will look like this year. Some phrases that can help include:
- This is a chance for us to start some new traditions!
- Instead of doing X, we can try Y.
- Let’s make a list of ways we can make this year special.
- What’s something you think would be fun for this holiday, but we’ve never had time to do before?
It’s also helpful to have some activities up your sleeve to keep kids busy during this time. Here are some great activities for this time of year that allow kids to have fun while helping to build new family traditions. The big bonus is that each of these activities has elements that soothe stress and anxiety, while calming hyperactivity. And, you likely have everything you need in your home, or can purchase the items inexpensively at your local Target or Walmart. Note: these will be a hit with the 12 and under crowd, but older kids can certainly participate and benefit!
- Glitter Globes – These slow-motion sensory soothing jars will help your child get rid of excess energy while reducing anxiety and overwhelm. Fill a clear jar or bottle ¾ full with clear Karo syrup (clear shampoo or vegetable oil will work, too), and the rest of the way with water. Put one or more colors of glitter in the jar (the more glitter the better), and add small items like buttons, sequins, or small foam shapes. For a festive vibe use holiday colors and shapes! Glue the lid on the top with super glue or hot glue. Kids can shake the bottle vigorously, and then calmly and quietly watch the glitter and other items float to the bottom.
- Holiday Hunt – Sending kids on a holiday-themed scavenger hunt through the house or yard engages kids’ brains and bodies in ways that improve mood, stress level, and focus. Write out clues (at their reading and developmental level of course) to hide in various places, and then send them searching. You don’t need anything fancy at the end – a small snack, dollar bin toy, or anything else they enjoy will do. Keep the benefits going by having them create clues for each other or a parent.
- Soothing Smoothies – One of the best ways to reduce anxiety, irritability, and hyper behavior is with brain-supportive foods. Smoothies are a great way to get the vitamins and minerals kids need to feel more relaxed, focused, and happier, and you can customize depending on their tastes and what you have on hand. The basic recipe requires non-dairy milk, fruits, and veggies (one or more frozen varieties will help the smoothie be nice and thick). Some great options include bananas, berries, spinach, coconut, and avocado. For extra benefits add some protein with nut butter or protein powder. Throw everything in the blender until smooth, pour, and serve. Sucking smoothies through a curly straw provides an extra dose of calm, cool, and collected.
- Dough Décor – This simple and inexpensive project keeps kids busy, provides an outlet for pent up energy and anxiety, and brings the holiday cheer. Depending on the age of your children, they may be able to do some or all of this on their own. Mix up a batch of salt dough using 4 cups all-purpose flour, 1 cup salt, and 1 ½ cups warm water. Put the dry ingredients in a large bowl and slowly add the water while mixing everything together. Knead the dough for 10 minutes (even young kids can do this part). Roll out the dough into ½” thick sheets on parchment paper, and use cookie cutters to make holiday shapes. Or kids can get creative and shape the dough into whatever they’d like. To turn them into ornaments, use a straw to poke a hole in the top so you can put ribbon or string through them when done. Bake the shapes right on the parchment paper on top of a cookie sheet in a 300-degree oven for about 1 hour – checking to make sure they are hard but not burned. Let them cool, and then decorate with whatever paint, glitter, sequins, or other items the kids come up with.
- Festive Fitness – Create an indoor obstacle course to give kids the structured physical activity their brains and bodies crave. The course should have a series of structured movement activities, including things like: jumping up and down 10 times (or on an indoor mini-trampoline), falling backwards into a pile of pillows, tossing beanbags into a bucket, walking on a masking tape “balance beam”, crawling under a table or chairs, blowing cotton balls across the table, jumping through a hula hoop, somersaulting or skipping from one point to another…you get the picture. Kids can help chose the components of the course and get it set up. Amp up the holiday fun with movements like “dreidel spin”, “melting snowman”, or “Santa somersaults”. Everyone takes turns going through the course, with bonus points for parents who get in on the action.
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