To Connect With Families and Children During The Holiday Season

The holidays are already upon us. We are already celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, along with a few others. Although each different holiday that families honor have different origins and purpose, they all share one central theme- be grateful, giving, genuine and recognize the good- the intrinsic value of every person.

By now, the turkey meals enjoyed at Thanksgiving are gone, and despite the fact that the true history of  ‘turkey’ day has been misrepresented, the deeper message is that we all show gratitude. The spirit of ‘giving’ is what we are expected to embody, at least until year’s end.

toxic famThe holidays, intended as a time to reflect, rejoice and rejuvenate, can serve as one of the most stressful times for individuals and families on a ‘normal’ basis. It is during those special days, when family and/or friends come together, that can be difficult for people estranged from loved ones. It can be quite lonely at holiday time. These past two years have brought families to spaces never before imagined. Disproportion, disparity and inequity have been exacerbated, and compounded by the uncertainty of sources of relief and supports they may access. For many, there is no imagined ‘end in sight’.

Isolation, social distancing and navigating life and learning in a virtual world brought people’s mental health to shift into a perpetually stressful existence characterized by daily confusion, anxiety, grief, loss and depression. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness[NAMI], 64% of people with mental illness report the holidays make their conditions worse. This can lead to the increase in crisis and other challenges and risks.

Question: What can we do to ensure that the children, youth, and families we partner with feel supported during this often difficult time of year and make it through the holidays successfully?


  • Be mindful of the many different cultural and religious holidays celebrated during these last months of our calendar year and the different meanings they may have for those who celebrate them. See this list:
  • Ask how the families you work and engage with perceive the holiday season and what, if anything, they celebrate/practice. Talk with each family about what is most important to them, what is hardest, what worries they have, and what would be most helpful to them during the holiday season.
  • It is extremely important that we do not make assumptions based on our own experiences and expectations about the traditions and beliefs of other families. Families celebrate the holidays and make meaning in different ways.
  • In this discovery of holiday practices and traditions, new strengths and important relationships may be uncovered. Use this information to inform planning and partnering.
  • Many organizations honor certain holidays and/or have specific holiday hours. These limitations put pressure on families to schedule their meetings earlier in the month and also limit crisis response. Create internal organizational plans to address such barriers to families. Be proactive, while offering contingency plans and options for supports for families accordingly.


  • Youth living outside of their homes should have a voice in the traditions being carried out within their foster placement, group home or hospital setting. Ask youth about positive memories and important traditions that can be infused into their current home. Advocate for them to have access to important relationships outside of the ‘system’ that is housing them.
  • Acknowledge loss. Families may be experiencing reminders of grief and loss during the holiday season, particularly within the past two years due to COVID-19, natural disasters, trauma, etc. Remember that the holidays are not cheerful for everyone, and that traditions, rituals and other celebratory activities are impacted by these experiences.


  • Routines, supports and services will look differently during the holiday season. By October or November, we should have taken time to identify, discuss and plan for specific triggers and action steps during the holidays. Consider triggers such as forced hugs, crowded spaces, sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall, parties with alcohol, exchanging gifts, loud noises, specific family members or friends, etc. Also consider how schedules can be impacted by holiday travel and participation in events and activities.
  • Work with the family to mitigate risk for a higher level of care, which may displace children and youth away from their family and home during this time. If already in these settings, youth are best served by planning to find opportunities for home passes or discharges prior to the ‘scaled-back’ staffing associated with the holiday season.



  • The holidays usually include an increased level of community activities that may escalate feelings of isolation for families of children with complex needs. Create opportunities for youth and their families to engage in activities with the best chance for success. Brainstorm  creative ways to participate in holiday fun and develop an individualized list of options. This includes things such as planning to talk to Santa from a distance rather than on his lap. Utilize battery-operated candles instead of lit candles for religious activities. Have supports like people to lend a hand during activities and provide breaks for youth and/or parent. Plan sensory-intentional holiday activities.


  •  Be proactive. Plan ahead so that families can feel in control of their agenda during the session. Unstructured days off from school should be coordinated with individualized activities and relevant care taken reduce stress during winter breaks.
  • Complete community mapping for charitable giving and resources early in the season. Many families may need support in planning for basic needs to carry out traditions and/or compensate for the lost nutrition provided within school settings.
  • Be mindful of interruptions due to holiday events. Strategies and tasks should be carefully planned so that families can get the help they need when they actually need it, without any disruption to their ability to practice traditions and beliefs.
  • Somatic health and COVID-19 precautions should be considered when we strategize to create a meaningful and effective plan during the holidays. Cold weather and scented candles can increase asthma, holiday foods may bring on spikes in insulin, and group gathering may increase risk for COVID-19.
  • Reflect on the holidays after the season. If it went well, why? Were more relevant supports involved? If it did not go well, what was missing? Use this rich information to build a more relevant plan all year long.



The takeaway is that each one of us deepen our awareness and build capacity to best serve and support families, children and youth not just because of the impact of COVID-19 on their lives and level of wellness. We want to take our new insights with us out into the world, engaging and empowering others far beyond this pandemic.  It is this new knowledge and perspective that should inform our ethics and, plainly said, it would be the most downright humane thing to do. In a diverse world, cultural humility, empathy and meeting families ‘where they are’  is a precedent for making authentic connections with families.



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