How to Cope If You Can't See Your Loved Ones This Holiday Season

Experts share practical advice for finding joy during this difficult time.

November 19, 2020
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1179406742

Photo by: Oleksandr Briagin/Getty Images

Oleksandr Briagin/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that’s been consistent throughout 2020, it’s that nothing looks like it did in years past. Now that the holidays are upon us, we’re facing that fact again — and this time, we’re staring down loneliness and disappointment during the time of year so many of us usually look forward to.

Though many of us won’t be doing what we love to do — gathering with family and friends, traveling or welcoming out-of-town guests, dressing up for holiday parties — that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to enjoy the holiday season.

One way to start is to approach the holidays with a combination of good planning and thoughtful mindset, says board certified clinical psychologist Dr. Jenny Yip, executive director of the Renewed Freedom Center.

"Holidays tend to be a time of stress anyway — stress with planning, stress with family members. It’s important to plan early this year and to make choices early so that you’re not trying to figure it all out last minute," Dr. Yip advises. "Even when you plan, though, don’t expect things to go perfectly. When you think things will go perfectly, that’s when you’ll be disappointed."

Instead, she recommends an active form of optimism. This means more than just being positive. "Positive thinking is when you think things will just go fine and dandy. When you do that, you’re not anticipating reality to occur," she says. "When you’re engaging in optimistic thinking, you’re anticipating uncertainty and you have the confidence in yourself to be able to problem solve and tackle whatever challenges come your way. I would plan early and practice optimistic thinking."

Here are some constructive ways to think about and plan for the holidays.

If you’re going to be alone for the holidays...

Perhaps you normally travel to be with loved ones and you can’t this year, or you have college-age or adult children who can’t be with you; no matter what the circumstances are, many of us will find ourselves on our own for the holidays. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find connection.

One suggestion is to ask yourself what traditions are most important to you, and how you can still observe them, says clinical psychologist Dr. Aimee Daramus. If there are dishes you always eat, or movies you always watch, you can still enjoy those things — and connect with loved ones via Zoom or FaceTime while you cook, eat, watch the movie, or participate in other activities.

Plus, there can be advantages to being on your own, Dr. Daramus notes. "This can be your year to have some fun and have things your way," she says. "You might like a different dessert or to cook the turkey a different way than usual."

Find a balance between keeping up traditions you love and replacing the ones you don’t. "This might be the only time you get to do that," she says.

If your family disagrees about gathering...

Another potential source of stress this holiday season: disagreements about safety during the pandemic. Some family members may think it’s fine to gather, while others don’t. Some families may disagree about safety precautions such as being indoors and wearing masks. All of this can result in tension and even arguments.

Since your safety and that of your family and community is at stake, this is the moment to stand your ground, both experts say. Be as kind as you possibly can, but remain firm.

"It’s really important to be able to establish boundaries — healthy emotional boundaries," Dr. Yip says. "This is your opportunity. If you’ve never had to or you’ve been unable to establish boundaries with your family members, this is a perfect time to practice that tool. You now have a great reason to say, 'It’s not going to work out this year.'"

Another thing to consider: It may be sadness or fear on your loved ones’ part that comes out as anger or disappointment, Dr. Daramus notes. Though you may be delivering unwelcome news, like you’re not attending or hosting as in previous years, you can soften the blow.

"Set your boundaries, and then try and ease any sense they have if they’re feeling neglected or unloved or abandoned," Dr. Daramus says. "Reinforce that you really do love them and care about them and want to see them," even as you remain firm about your decision.

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Photo by: Marko Geber/Getty Images

Marko Geber/Getty Images

If you have younger kids who are sad because the holidays will be different...

Parents of younger children may be dealing with their kids’ sadness and disappointment as well as their own. But this can be a moment of growth that you can guide them through, Dr. Yip suggests.

"The thing about children is that they’re very adaptable," she says. "We’ve gotten into a habit of trying to fix everything for them. The reality is that a child’s life will be filled with disappointments, and if we allow them to figure out how they can improve a situation, what they can do about it, we’re actually providing them with the opportunity to practice the skill of being resilient."

Allow your kids to openly voice their feelings without judgment. "Don’t force it, but make a time to sit down and ask your children what’s going to be difficult for them this year, and is there anything we can do to make you feel better," Dr. Daramus says. Acknowledging their feelings and not trying to gloss over them can help kids feel understood.

Giving kids a sense of agency can go a long way toward helping them not only cope, but actually enjoy the holidays this year, both experts say. Mapping out what the holiday plans are can help, so they know what to expect. And then involving them as much as possible in planning, shopping, decorating, cooking and other activities can help them feel like they have some control, which not only can ease anxiety but also bring a sense of ownership and enjoyment for them.

Volunteering together or involving children in choosing a charity to donate to also can add meaning to the holidays. Plus, research shows that performing acts of kindness can boost happiness.

If your kids aren’t coming home...

For some parents, this may be the first year the kids aren’t coming home, and that can bring about feelings of sadness or loss.

Building a new experience around family traditions can help. If your kids are college age or just recently moved out, they may not yet know how to make their favorite dishes, so one way to connect with them and make the holiday feel special is to teach them how virtually. "Have this be the year that you pass on the torch of the family knowledge," Dr. Daramus suggests.

Dr. Yip points out that parents can displace sadness with feelings of pride about their children making a safer choice. "I would respect my children for making these choices," she says. "If my child prefers not to come home because of the dangers and risk that they may pose to us, I would think that’s a very mature decision to make. I would be proud of that. If you’re proud of your child, and you’re able to look at it from a meaningful perspective, that will help to reduce some of the sadness."

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