Not many of Burbank’s young children mention the coronavirus pandemic when they write to Santa. But some do.
In early December, Steve Nalbantian and his wife, Emily, owners of the Ugly Mug Coffee House in Burbank, set up a bright red mailbox to Santa in front of their business. They started the ritual last year, but Steve said it has particular importance in 2020.
“We really want to start a tradition, but we also want the kids to remember the place that they went to. … We want to give the kids some memories about their childhood,” Nalbantian said. “The kids don’t have that right now because of the pandemic.”
The mailbox has proved popular. Nalbantian said between 30 and 40 letters were dropped off in December 2019. After the box was in place for about a week this year, he had received 70 or 80 letters.
He said he plans to keep the mailbox there until after Christmas, potentially until New Year’s Day. Children who include a return address with their letter will receive a small gift and a message from Santa in the mail.
Only a few of the letters that have come in from kids have referenced the pandemic, Nalbantian added. But the ones that do seem more concerned about Santa than the children themselves: How are you doing? How are your reindeer? I hope you’ll be able to come out for Christmas.
(For the record, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is helping lead the White House’s response to COVID-19, told USA Today that Santa is immune to the disease.)
TALKING WITH CHILDREN
But experts note that though children may not understand the implications of a global pandemic, they are often sensitive to its effects on their families.
Karissa Provost and Taylor Foxhall, directors and licensed therapists at the Burbank-based nonprofit organization Family Service Agency, say they’ve spoken with families who are worried and disappointed about how the pandemic will change their holiday traditions.
They’re “expressing their feelings of grief or sadness regarding the changes,” Provost said, “whether they go back east to see grandparents and aren’t able to do that for the first time … or their economic circumstances have changed drastically.”
Young children, experts also note, are perceptive to the stress their parents are feeling, but may have difficulty clearly expressing their own feelings.
“We shouldn’t assume that kids have the developmental readiness or the skills to navigate those conversations,” said Julie Cederbaum, a faculty member at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “I always talk to parents about … asking questions instead of just assuming that if you don’t hear anything, everything’s fine.”
Cederbaum added that parents might need to ask kids multiple times about their feelings before they get a candid response. Particularly with younger children, she explained, uncertainty and fear might express themselves as disinterest or outbursts of anger.
Darby Saxbe, a psychology professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, noted that she has heard some parents reporting that their children have been acting out more — a particularly challenging issue for parents already stressed from balancing work and home life.
“There’s not necessarily easy solutions beyond everyone [needing] to show a little more compassion and understanding,” Saxbe said. “Parents can try to bring a little extra patience to the table even while acknowledging that parents themselves are really stressed and overwhelmed. It’s going to take a little more hard work.”
When explaining that plans or traditions need to be changed, the faculty members said, parents should help children understand the reasons behind the changes.
Saying something like, “I know this is disappointing, but we’re all in this together, and we’re doing what we’re doing to keep our family safe” can be helpful for young kids, Saxbe explained, adding that it’s OK to allow space for disappointment.
Foxhall noted that, while the content of those conversations will depend on the relationship between the parent and child, generally it’s best to avoid the kinds of details that are difficult for kids to understand or resolve.
“It’s [about] being less detailed about what you’re overwhelmed about and a bit more general about what’s important,” he said.
Cederbaum agreed that parents can tell their children that they’re disappointed or saddened that the holidays won’t look the same this year as in previous years, but cautioned that adults shouldn’t vent to their kids.
“You’re not going to speak to your child as if they’re your friend, but you can express emotions in a thoughtful and clear way so they know it’s also OK to express emotion,” Cederbaum said.
Saxbe recommended that families create new traditions this year if their rituals have been disrupted by the pandemic. Writing letters of thankfulness to each other or lighting candles for the people the family is missing can highlight the meaning of the holiday season, and having a “winter picnic” in the living room or taking a trip to the beach can be a memorable experience.
While Cederbaum believes there are some topics that parents should avoid speaking about in depth with their younger children — financial stress, for example — she said it is important to talk to kids if they have lost a family member.
Avoiding the subject, she added, can actually scare a young child more, as they may feel concerned that their parents could also die.
“Kids are really perceptive,” Cederbaum said, “meaning when we as adults are stressed or sad or scared, they are well aware something is happening.”
She added that parents will likely know the best way to breach the subject of death or illness with their child within their personal or religious framework. But she also encourages adults to be comfortable with admitting they don’t know all the answers — sometimes the kids may just need more hugs.
Provost added that many children likely already have some understanding — however basic — of the pandemic, saying that explaining to children the precautions the family is taking to remain safe is more comforting than simply telling them that they or the parents aren’t in danger.
Foxhall also said parents should remind their children and themselves that the things they’re experiencing, whether it’s grief or something else caused by the pandemic, are not unique to their family — they’re collective.
“As tragic as that is,” he said, “it can make kids and families feel less alone.”