Help your family maintain good physical and mental health this holiday season

The holidays are usually filled with festivities and gatherings with friends and family, but this year, celebrations will look different – especially as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that gatherings with friends and family who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. "The safest way to celebrate the holidays is to stay home with members of your household," says Carla Garcia Carreno, M.D., Infectious Disease Specialist at Children's Health℠. "It's important to consider any risk factors within your community and family."

Although limiting holiday activities may be the right thing to do, it isn't easy. After all, family traditions and visits with loved ones bring joy during difficult times.

"Not being able to celebrate the holidays as you normally would may bring a myriad of emotions like sadness, disappointment or even grief," says Brittany Gresl, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Children's Health and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. "However, this can also give your family an opportunity to reconnect over more intimate, meaningful exchanges."

Here are a few tips to help support your family's physical and emotional health as you navigate this unprecedented holiday season.

1. Know the risks of holiday gatherings

When considering a holiday get-together, think about who within your family has risk factors for becoming seriously ill from COVID-19. This may include people over the age of 65 and people with chronic conditions like obesity, heart disease or diabetes. If anyone has these risk factors, it's best to avoid any gatherings.

"I know everyone wants to see loved ones, but a virtual gathering would be the safest way to celebrate with others outside your household," says Dr. Garcia Carreno.

If you choose to see family or friends, consider making celebrations smaller by limiting the number of households attending and where your gatherings occur.

Opt for an outdoor get-together with appropriate social distancing to increase safety. If your celebrations are inside, wear masks and consider opening the windows to improve ventilation. Dr. Garcia Carreno also recommends each household sit at least six feet apart from each other when eating and that you avoid potluck or buffet-style meals.

"When everyone goes to serve themselves, it increases the risk of people putting their hands near the food," explains Dr. Garcia Carreno. "It's better to have one person serve the food to everyone and have that person wash their hands thoroughly and wear a mask. Another option is to have each family bring their own food and utensils."

Suggest that anyone attending a gathering quarantine at home for two weeks before the event, if possible. Very importantly, if anyone is feeling ill, make sure they and their household members remain at home.

It's helpful to set these expectations prior to any gatherings. "Make a plan ahead of time," suggests Dr. Gresl. "Not everyone may be on the same page about how to respond to COVID-19, so focus on making a plan in advance that you and your family are comfortable with."

2. If you do travel, plan carefully

This year, it's best to stay close to home as traveling adds additional risk of spreading COVID-19. If there's no way around traveling this holiday season, plan ahead and take precautions to limit exposure. If possible, don't stop during traveling and always wear a mask if you have to go inside an establishment. If you stay at a hotel, review their cleaning policies to ensure they are doing everything to keep you safe. See more advice for traveling during COVID-19.

3. Keep taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19

Whether you visit family or not, you need to continue practicing everyday precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as:

Additionally, make sure everyone in your family over the age of 6 months gets a flu shot this year to help avoid getting sick.

Ahead of the holidays, ask your primary care physician about any office closures and have a plan of who to contact if someone in your family gets sick. For instance, the pediatrician office may be closed for the holiday but might have a nurse line you can call if needed or a recommendation for a virtual visit.

4. Avoid holiday crowds

During the busy holiday season, take care to avoid large groups of people, especially indoors. Consider using services like online shopping and curbside pick-up to limit trips to the grocery store or the mall. If you have to run an errand in person, try to choose a less busy time of day and always wear a mask.

Choose other holiday activities wisely as well. Standing in a crowd, even when taking precautions, can add risk of contracting COVID-19. Whenever possible, celebrate holiday activities at home. For instance, swap out a yearly trip to meet Santa Claus in-person for a virtual visit with Santa, allowing your children to safely share their holiday wishes.

5. Make your holidays bright

While there's no getting around the reality of the pandemic this year, you can still find creative ways to celebrate as a family. Rather than focus on what you cannot do, Dr. Gresl encourages families to focus on what you can do to find meaning this holiday season.

Try to adapt your typical traditions or find new ways to safely experience the holidays, such as:

  • Spending time at home together, enjoying holiday music, movies or crafts, or even decorating face masks for the holidays.
  • Doing a virtual gift exchange by sending gifts to friends and family and opening them together over video chat.
  • Finding ways to care for others in your community safely, such as adopting a family and shipping gifts directly to the charity instead of dropping them off yourself or donating food to a food bank.
  • Decorating the exterior of your house and going all-out so neighbors can enjoy the holidays with you.
  • Have a virtual holiday meal together by sitting down in your own homes at the same time with video running.

"It may not look the same to bake cookies or eat dinner with grandparents over a video call, but the shared experience still holds value," says Dr. Gresl. "Spend time reflecting on memories of past holidays and look forward to and hope for the future holidays together."

6. Let your heart be light

Everyone in the family may feel disappointed or sad this year, and that's okay. It's normal to feel upset when you can't take part in activities you enjoy or see the people you love.

Dr. Gresl encourages parents to create a safe environment for expressing feelings. Check in with your child and validate their emotions to make sure they feel heard. This may be as simple as acknowledging, "I know you are sad right now, and that's okay."

Children are likely to experience different reactions based on their developmental level. Remind your child that the best gift they can give their family this year is staying safe. "We want to keep our families and loved ones safe this year, so we can have many safe future holiday seasons together," says Dr. Garcia Carreno.

How you respond to the holiday season can also affect your child's response. "As a parent, children look to you for reference for how to cope with challenges," says Dr. Gresl. "Managing your own disappointment and expectations about the holidays can help teach your children how to navigate difficult circumstances."

For the happiest holidays, make an effort to model appropriate self-care. After all, in order to take care of your kids, you've got to take care of yourself, too. Carving out just 10 minutes a day to take some deep breaths, do something you enjoy or relax in a quiet space can be a game changer for your own mental health during the holidays.

Lastly, remember that you're not alone in navigating this unusual holiday season.

"It's okay for it not to be perfect. It's just one holiday season of many," says Dr. Gresl. "This has been a challenging year for everyone. If you or your child are struggling, seek professional help."


Learn more

Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.

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