As we head into the second set of winter holidays amid COVID-19, the pandemic may be waning or it may be about to get worse with the omicron variant. This uncertainty makes a time of year that’s already stressful for families with children even more so.
“The holidays are a season of tremendous joy for many families. But it’s also a season of high expectations that can be stressful in ways that don’t always get as much attention,” said Andrew Tucker, director of behavioral health programs for Children’s Home Society of Washington. The nonprofit provides counseling as well as other services to children and families.
He’s concerned because the holidays, fraught during the best of times, this year come during a mental health crisis among children.
Gov. Jay Inslee declared the fragile state of kids’ mental health a state emergency in March, after Washington’s hospitals reported a spike in suicide attempts and psychiatric unit admissions among children.
Then in October, associations representing pediatricians, child and adolescent psychiatrists, and children’s hospitals declared a nationwide emergency in children’s mental health, citing the serious toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of existing challenges.
Even if your kids seem fine, “it can be helpful to relax on nonessential expectations” during the holidays, Tucker said.
Last year, gathering with extended family wasn’t advised. This year, with vaccines available and safety precautions relaxed, many families will choose to get together. Others may still be wary, given that no COVID-19 vaccine is yet available for children younger than 5 and scientific uncertainty whether existing vaccines protect against the new omicron variant. Family members may not all agree about what’s safe.
“Hardening of positions on vaccines and mandates can also make gathering a little bit more stressful for families,” Tucker said. “It’s important for families to have respectful, open communication about how the holidays are going to work. … I think it can be just as simple as saying, ‘In light of everything that’s going on right now, I’d like to schedule a time to talk through how we’ll do the holidays this year.’ ”
“Approach these issues with a commitment to maintaining the relationship regardless of the decision made,” he added. “Think of it less as a problem with a solution than as a dilemma that needs to be navigated together.”