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How to successfully manage holiday topics in-session – What child therapists need to know

With Autumn in full swing, we are getting closer and closer to what some call the most wonderful time of the year. 

…Some. Not all. 

The therapeutic dynamics we navigate as child and teen therapists often become more complex around the holidays. While we prepare for and participate in the holiday season and manage our own personal obligations as a friend, sibling, partner, parent, and individual, our professional responsibilities require a little extra time, attention, and emotional intelligence. 

As we move into this unique time of year, let’s explore and reflect for a moment what we as child therapists need to be mindful of during the holiday season. Here are 6 therapist-inspired tips on how to navigate in-session client work during the holiday season like a pro.  

1. Familiarize yourself with any holidays your clients celebrate AND don’t celebrate. 

Between October and February, there are many holidays. Chances are, you are already familiar with some of the more popular, Western-specific holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year. Keep in mind that your clients may or may not celebrate these holidays, and if they do, they may not celebrate it the way others do. 

Additionally, some of your clients may value holidays related to their own culture/religion that are not widely acknowledged or understood by peers. (IE: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year vs. Lunar New Year, National Adoption Day, Las Posadas, etc.) It is best to avoid assuming anything. Check in with caregivers directly and ask them how they are feeling about the approaching holidays. Additionally, ask caregivers for their thoughts on how to best support their children in-session.

Read more Parent check-ins: Why they matter and what child therapists need to know

It may also be appropriate to approach holiday topics directly during your in-session work with the child client, however there are times when a non-directive approach may be the better option. Depending on the client, you might consider taking a proactive approach in-session and inquire curiously about important family holidays and festive nuances. Or you might simply hold space and let the child client initiate in-session discussion about holiday topics. Whether you are direct or allow your client to take the lead in their session, take some time to do your own research, and avoid relying solely on your client and their family to educate you about a particular holiday. 

2. Be sensitive in how you talk about holidays. 

Even if you are excited about a particular holiday you celebrate, remember that the holidays can be a very stressful time for families – especially families with lower financial means, foster and adoptive children, and children whose families do not celebrate or partake in mainstream holidays. Children are children, and they often don’t understand why things at home may be different than things at school. They may not know how to express their feelings regarding holiday nuances, but the variance does impact them. They feel it, even if they can’t explain it.

The feeling of “being different” can make cultural nuances around the holidays more challenging for a child/adolescent to process. Consequently, it’s easy for children and adolescents to feel ostracized in environments where others may excitedly talk about and participate in traditions that are different from the ones of their family, such as giving and receiving gifts. Not all cultural holidays have gift-giving traditions, and even if they do, some families do not have the financial means to experience the holidays in the same way others do. 

3. Be intentional with how you decorate your office or virtual space.
Your office, play therapy room, your virtual background space, and any other treatment space your clients see should have an accommodating atmosphere. Decorations should be used to curate the space based on the unique interests and needs of each client. Ideally, items in your therapeutic space should function as props and should help facilitate interactive conversations or practices that are relevant to a client’s therapeutic goals. 

Remember that the ambiance of a therapeutic workspace should support your client’s healing experience and be a calming, inviting environment. You want your clients to feel as comfortable as possible in-session, and if a child client and their family do not celebrate a certain holiday, they may not feel comfortable in a space decorated in celebration of that certain holiday. 

4. Be mindful of when and how you incorporate holiday themed therapeutic exercises.
As child therapists, we often engage in therapeutic exercises with our clients to encourage collaboration and productive dialogue. Particularly with children, the impulse to customize a therapeutic exercise in a holiday or seasonally specific way may seem like a good idea – and it absolutely can be with some clients. However, it is worth giving extra consideration as to if, when, and how you incorporate holiday themed worksheets, exercises, and games in-session. 

5. Be prepared to help clients navigate holiday grief triggers. 
While other families may gather in festive droves around this time, the holiday season can be very hard for families who have lost loved ones. For families who have lost loved ones, grief can surge at any time, but there’s something about the holiday season that can make grief even more pronounced. Every child is different, and while some may invite holiday festivities as a welcome distraction, this is not always the case. 

For children who have lost a caregiver or a very close family member, the holidays may be no fun at all, and the festivities can provoke complex emotions and trigger deep grief. If you are aware or suspect that grief is something your client may be coping with, be prepared. When possible, let the client take the lead with when and how they express their grief, and be ready to respond appropriately. 

6. Use holiday nuances as an opportunity to promote positive self-concepts.
Being sensitive and inclusive towards holiday nuances can feel challenging or even restrictive at times, but it’s actually a wonderful opportunity for therapists! Exercising mindful sensitivity around the holidays can open so many avenues for client growth and provide unique ways for you to earn your client’s trust and improve the therapist-client relationship. 

Demonstrating your therapeutic competence and empathy towards cultural and family circumstances further develops your rapport with client caregivers and allows you to show up for your child clients in a very unique and powerful way. Some children feel invisible and forgotten around the holidays, and it is quite possible that you may be the first person to ever make them feel seen, heard, and understood during the holidays. That is significant. 

The holidays are an incredibly special time for therapists to shine in their in-session client work. Holiday matters often cause personal topics to bubble up, and these personal topics offer open gateways into deeper work. By exploring your client through the lens of their own unique holiday experience, you can provide more personalized treatment and better help your client cultivate positive self-concepts. 

The bottom line

The ultimate message of this entire blog could be summarized in three key takeaways: 

  1. Avoid assuming anything. 
  2. Be sensitive to familial and cultural holiday nuances because they absolutely matter.
  3. Treat the holidays as an opportunity to build trust, strengthen the therapist-client relationship, and increase rapport. 

In closing, be sure to give yourself the same grace and space you extend to others. The holidays can be challenging for everyone at times, and giving yourself the same courtesy you give to your clients will help you navigate the holiday season effectively and therapeutically.