Holiday Tips for Families Experiencing Loss or an Absent Parent

imageI lost my father to cancer just before Christmas when I was a teenager, and now, 20 years later, my daughter is coping with her fourth holiday season without her dad (absentee). Through trial and error, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t, and I’m still learning — life’s like that.

The following five holiday tips for families experiencing loss or an absent parent have gotten us through some tough years, and it’s my hope they help you, too. And at the end, I invite you to share your own coping methods because by sharing, we can all learn and grow.

1. Reverse the Commercial Christmas Mindset

Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, reversing the mini-consumer monster mindset does wonders. Instead, come up with creative ways for the kids to give a little bit every day, every week, as often as necessary. According to psychologists, giving provides a greater psychological benefit than receiving. Therefore, helping the kids focus on and give to others will give them a break from dwelling on themselves, give them perspective, and remind them they still have a lot to be grateful for. And giving, particularly altruistic giving, affords them a sense of purpose and fulfillment. 

My daughter stepping outside her holiday blues by donating to toy drives, food drives, shopping for socks for the homeless, and surprising Mommy with a tea party and arts and crafts! (so proud!)

My daughter stepping outside her holiday blues by donating to toy drives, food drives, shopping for socks for the homeless, and surprising Mommy with a tea party and arts and crafts! (so proud!)

Here are a few examples of kid-friendly community activities they can get involved in:

  • Homemade holiday cards for neighbors and teachers. Arts and crafts — fun!
  • Fresh baked goods for the local firemen, police, nursing homes, etc. Cooking is a great learning tool for kids and a wonderful opportunity for bonding with them.
  • Taking much-needed items (e.g., toys, canned foods, socks and warm clothing) to local shelters, churches, and community centers.
  • Painting something nice with an encouraging note for the local hospital’s children’s ward.
  • Whatever resonates with your family and the needs of your community. There’s always a need . . . on both sides.

Once they see how their acts of giving positively impact others, they’ll be eager to help more! And giving, rather than getting, leads to sustainable happiness. 

2. Remind the Kids It’s OK to Feel a Little Sad . . . Even During the Holidays

And it’s perfectly normal to enjoy themselves, too. Often people feel a little of both at the same time. And that’s just fine. If you notice they’re spiraling down or can’t shake the holiday blues, have them make their own happy jar and use it in their time of need! 

happy jarA happy jar is a jar filled with colorful bits of folded paper each containing a picture and/or word that triggers what makes the kids happy, what they’re grateful for, what makes them laugh, they’re favorite uplifting songs, what they love to do. The action and song ones are usually the favorites, for when you pull those out of the happy jar (e.g., blowing bubbles or a dance off or piggyback rides), you and the kids do it! My daughter has been using a happy jar for about six months now, and it’s awesome! (Tip: Add surprise happy notes to it from time to time to keep it fresh).

3. Encourage the Kids to Talk about Their Feelings . . . 

And listen in earnest no matter what they say. Anger, resentment, sadness, they are just as valid as more positive feelings. And it’s important the kids know that and have an outlet to express and process all their feelings, especially with you. In doing so, you’re giving them a safe space, building trust, and helping them work through their emotions, all of which are conducive to raising emotionally intelligent children. (Tip: Keep your own talking and explanations brief and to the point, or you’ll lose them.)

4. Teach the Kids to Focus on What They Have, Not What They Lack

Now, this may sound like an impossible feat when Christmas specials are playing 24/7 all month with shameless advertising every 10 minutes. But it’s worth your effort to try, and here’s why.

Gratitude unlocks happiness. “Psychologists Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons assert that people who express gratitude on a regular basis tend to be healthier, more mentally alert, and emotionally supportive of others.” (Mayberry,
Tips for Teaching Kids Gratitude – To Hab & To Hold

More and more mental health professionals are beginning to recognize the undeniable benefits of DAILY gratitude. Gratitude can be tricky for kids and even more so around the holidays, especially for little ones dealing with loss or an absent parent. What I do when my daughter begins to dwell on not having her dad around — after talking about it, hugging it out, when she’s simply rolling around in self-pity — I ask her to list five things she’s grateful for. This shifts the focus immediately from what she doesn’t have to what she does have

I also remind her that, like her, everyone is going through something difficult. Some kids don’t have parents at all; some have both parents but are very lonely; some have everything they could ever want but are sick; some are healthy and have everything and seem perfect but are inexplicably unhappy; and some are the happiest kids you’ll ever meet (like a group of remarkable kids she met recently) even though they’re physically or mentally challenged.

I always tell her . . .

Positive life quote - Tuned In Parents

Then I ask her again, “What are you happy about?” It helps both of us. (Tip: Focus on the good without invalidating the bad.)

5. Spend More Time with the Kids, Less Money

It’s almost a reflex to try to distract our kids with shiny, new things when they’re hurting. Anything to ease their pain . . . and ours. However, we learn, time and time again, this tactic is as effective as a band-aid on a boat leak. Buying their happiness never works. In fact, attempting to do so may make things worse, often delaying the natural process of coping and giving kids a false impression that “happiness” is farther out of reach than it is in actuality.

Parents spending time with children

Kids crave your time . . . AND shiny, new stuff . . . but if they had to choose, they’d pick the toys first, then change their minds in no time. Save money, save yourself the stress, and scoop up the kids and just DO stuff. Whatever it is you enjoy doing as often as you can. The toys can wait until the big day — by then, it’ll be more special, anyway.

What did I miss? I want to hear from you. Please comment how you get through the holidays with kids experiencing loss or an absent parent.

Thank you for being tuned in parents! I welcome your comments, suggestions, stories, and more parenting tips here and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest!

-Elle C.


About Elle C. Mayberry

Elle C. Mayberry is a mom and author, who just released a new children's book with her young daughter. With a passion for parenting and degrees in psychology and "make it workology," she created Tuned In Parents (TiP).

6 comments on “Holiday Tips for Families Experiencing Loss or an Absent Parent

  1. Fantastic tips!! These could be very useful to anybody, any time of year, in any circumstances…but what better time to start than the holidays! I love the happy jar, too. I will have to start using one around here 🙂

    Thank you for sharing with us at #MommyMeetupMondays!

    • Great point about year-round usefulness, Brandyn! And I hope the happy jar is as much fun for your family as it is for mine. ^_^ Thanks for sharing!

  2. It’s always hard when family is not around. I lost my Dad 23 years ago and still wish I could spend any other holiday, or day, with him. Sending hugs to your family! 🙂

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