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By: Dr. Tami Silverman     

It is an understatement to say that things have been different this year. For our children and youth, everything from school schedules and rules, to sports and activities, to interactions with friends have changed.

Because we are still enduring the worst pandemic in a century, Thanksgiving will most likely be different this year as well. How can we stay safe and yet retain our cherished family rituals? How can we help prepare our kids for these changes? And, can we really focus on gratitude despite so many stressors and changes?

Family rituals, such as Thanksgiving dinner, football games and holiday shopping, provide children a sense of social connectedness. And this connectedness can be a protective factor against youth anxiety and depression.

Health experts know that the decisions people make about Thanksgiving may not be easy, but they can be made safer by planning ahead and communicating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published guidelines and recommendations for keeping this year’s Thanksgiving gatherings safe (CDC advice on celebrating Thanksgiving safely).

Recommendations include considering connecting in smaller groups, outdoors, or virtually. And if there is someone in the family who disagrees with your approach to or concern about Covid-19, perhaps this is the year to have that discussion by phone, instead of in person.

Although many gatherings will be different this year, there are plenty of ways we can make the holiday meaningful for our children.

Preparing for the holiday:
  1. Help those at high risk. Prepare and deliver traditional family recipes for relatives and neighbors that are at high risk.
  2. Create a shared experience. Let your children make the invitation for a virtual event or develop a playlist.
  3. Share the meal prep. You can build connections by sharing recipes of treasured family favorites. You may be apart from family members, but you can all make the same items and compare notes. Talk about the origins of the recipes, why its special to your family, and who taught you to make it.
On Thanksgiving:
  1. Let the kids take the lead. Whether are home or on a virtual platform, they can start the celebration with a prayer, a song, a joke, or even their own Tik Tok dance.
  2. Prep some conversation starters. The Family Dinner Project has developed a virtual dinner party guide that is filled with activities and discussion starters (Virtual Dinner Party Guide.pdf).
  3. Watch together. You can still enjoy sports, parades, and movies from different locations.
  4. Endure the cold. You never know about Indiana weather, but it is likely to be chilly on Thanksgiving. If you are gathering outside, wear layers, have blankets available, and gather around a fire or heater, if possible.
After the holiday:
  1. Volunteer in your community. Activities like donating food or outgrown clothing help children understand the experiences and needs of others. Kids involved in community service grow into adults that typically have a stronger work ethic, continue to volunteer, and have higher voting rates.
  2. Shop online rather than in person on the day after Thanksgiving or the following Monday.
  3. Continue the connections. Puzzles, neighborhood walks, board games – look for ways to keep the children in your life engaged with each other and caring adults.

Whatever your Thanksgiving looks like this year, it is important we help our children and youth focus on gratitude.  According to Harvard Health Publishing, gratitude is thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, children acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, they can learn that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside them. And gratitude has been shown to help kids and adults be resilient through tough times, from experiencing more positive emotions, to reducing stress, to sleeping better.

Youth First, Inc. published an article earlier this fall, Finding Gratitude Amidst a Pandemic, that  challenges us to focus on the pandemic benefits of slowing down and practicing gratitude. This year more than ever, we are grateful for the educators, afterschool providers, coaches, youth group leaders, and youth workers that teach, support, and care for our children. Ask your children to talk about the things they appreciate about some of the important adults in their lives.

It is not easy to skip or amend our favorite holiday traditions. At the same time, this may be the perfect year to shake things up and create new fun. By being flexible and focusing on gratitude, holiday gatherings can be a way to show our kids that building connections with them is what matters most.

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(Dr. Tami Silverman is the President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at iyi@iyi.org or on Twitter at@Tami_IYI. IYI’s mission is to improve the lives of all Indiana children by strengthening and connecting the people, organizations, andcommunities that are focused on kids and youth.)