Family Stressors This Christmas: What You Need to Know
Published: November 18, 2022
For some families in our churches and communities, Christmas isn’t quite as merry as we may assume. The holidays can cause additional stress for children whose parents are divorced, whose family finances are strained, or whose families have recently suffered grief and loss. As we lead children this Christmas, let’s consider how we can bring comfort and joy rather than trigger family stressors.
Kids and families have been through a lot lately. A happy holiday event or service feels like a wonderful opportunity to celebrate! Yet, when families enter your church this Christmas, they carry all sorts of feelings, experiences, and trauma. If only it was easier to spot those unspoken and unsaid burdens.
As children’s ministry leaders, you may not know what the families you serve are going through. But you can educate yourself to the stressors facing families today. Awareness and understanding are the first steps to truly serving families well.
Don’t assume to know all the answers. Ask questions and learn from others.
So where do we begin? Well, we can ask for help.
It’s likely you’ve got experts in your church or community. Identify people who work with families of all shapes and sizes, or those who have experience with those at-risk. I reached out to three people who interact with kids and families on a regular basis. I asked them about family stressors to be mindful of this Christmas—and all year long.
John Walt leads children and family ministry at a church in Minnesota. He and his wife, Katie, live in Golden Valley, Minnesota with their kids, Zamira, Isaiah, and Dorian, plus their two cats. In addition to serving families at church, John and Katie have personally navigated the journey of foster care and adoption.
I also reached out to Grace Ann Zuckerman. Grace Ann has been a clinical social worker in the state of Maryland for over 20 years, meeting the needs of children, teens, adults, and families. Her training at Johns Hopkins Hospital in clinical community counseling and play therapy has equipped her to counsel children and adults with a broad spectrum of challenges, while building their strengths.
And I connected with Karen Shumate. Karen works as an academic interventionist for kindergarten through fifth grade students at an elementary school in Loveland, Colorado. Her passion for helping families in need has sparked programs and partnerships between local churches and at-risk families in her community. She’s led after-school tutoring programs, gift drives, and family-centered initiatives in her community.
John, Grace Ann, and Karen shared advice and insights that opened my eyes and heart to families’ unspoken needs at Christmas time. Read on to discover for yourself what unseen stressors may accompany families through the doors of your church building this Christmas.
What types of family stressors should children’s ministry leaders be aware of as they serve kids and families—especially at Christmas?
Grace Ann shared some stressors she’s noticing with families today. “Family stressors can include financial hardships as many businesses were forced to close down, anxiety and/or depression as a result of COVID-19, grief over loved ones lost due to the pandemic, and overall exhaustion from everything our world has gone through. Unfortunately, substance abuse and alcoholism increased during this time, too, causing a great deal of chaos in many families.” Grace Ann also noted that many young adults have struggled with gender fluidity and sexual identity, therefore creating a lot of emotional cutoffs in families, too.
Karen mentioned additional stressors she notices in her elementary school. “The challenges include homelessness, food insecurity, and lack of income to provide gifts.”
And John listed a variety of family dynamics to consider:
- divorced parents and remarried parents
- parents or close extended family members that have recently fallen ill or passed away
- kids in foster care who might not get to see their biological parents
- kids in foster care who don’t want to see biological family, but have to
- adopted children who are struggling with mixed feelings—a combination of grief and happiness or excitement and sometimes shame
- families who are missing parents who are deployed or otherwise out of the country
- families who have older siblings who might be gone (from home) for the first time
We can’t assume that our own family experiences apply to everyone. Certainly, we lament the hardships children and families today. But we also need to adjust our idea of what’s “normal” for families. Jesus chose to enter our messy world in order to show God’s unstoppable love. Therefore, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we too can meet families right where they are with Jesus’ love. (Wondering how to talk with families experiencing hardship? Check out these practical insights.)
What are some assumptions children’s ministry leaders should not make about the families they serve this Christmas?
Don’t assume that children know the Christmas story.
Karen’s interactions with children and teenagers led to a discovery: “Don’t assume children know the Nativity story! That sounds strange, but I have had church-raised volunteer teens, unable to tell the story or act it out for the children I work with.”
Don’t assume all families know Jesus.
John cautioned against assuming that all families have a relationship with Jesus. He says, “The big (assumption) that always shocks me is when I am talking to a family that has been coming to church regularly, and I find out that they aren’t actually believers. They came to church for various reasons and have stuck around, but they aren’t Jesus followers. This is especially true around the holidays when you get people coming who wouldn’t normally.”
Don’t assume to know what goes on behind the scenes in a family’s world.
Grace Ann cautioned against making assumptions about what goes on behind the scenes in a family’s world. “Even though a family may appear as a unit, many couples are struggling in their marriages, and children/teens may feel disconnected from their family.”
Karen points out another reality for children; “Another obvious assumption is that all kids have loving adults in their home. Sadly, some just don’t.”
Grace Ann encourages ministry leaders not to assume that all people who walk through the doors of a church are clean and sober or that family members may not be experiencing domestic violence, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, and neglect.
Don’t assume all partners are married.
Grace Ann cautions, “Not all families that show up to church are actually married. It may be a blending of two households where the kids may not necessarily get along with one another or with the opposite parent.” Be mindful of this dynamic when explaining Mary and Joseph’s unusual relationship, when referring to kids’ family members, or when asking kids about their plans for celebrating Christmas at home.
Even if some kids have heard it countless times, or you struggle to find a new and creative way to tell it, children need to hear the Christmas story. Because not all kids are familiar with the Biblical story of Christmas, we should avoid putting kids on the spot with closed-ended questions that quiz their Bible knowledge. Instead, pose open ended questions that allow all kids to interact with story in a meaningful way that points them to Jesus. For example, “Tell about a time something unexpected happened to you.” or “When have you felt like a shepherd, overlooked and unimportant?” or “How does it help you to know that Jesus came to earth in such a humble way?” (Songs of the Christmas Story can help with this! It features four Christmas lessons filled with open-ended, faith-focused questions!)
What practical things CAN children’s ministry leaders do to bring comfort and joy to children whose families are in crisis this Christmas?
Host events for families.
Grace Ann writes: “Holding fun family events such as campfires/smores, games that encourage teamwork within the family (like a church scavenger hunt), or a family ‘Happy Hour’ with food would be a great start.”
Be a friend.
According to Grace Ann, children’s ministry leaders have a unique befriending opportunity. “Children’s ministry leaders can be present and available to create safe and spiritual relationships with [families in crisis].”
John agrees. To him, being a friend to kids looks like this: “If appropriate, letting [kids] know you are always available to talk when things aren’t going great. If kids know that they have a safe place at church, it can go a long way in helping them survive some of the more dysfunctional parts of their lives.”
Create community connections.
Be ready to refer families to professionals or community organizations who can help. Grace Ann notes: “Another practical step would be to connect families to community resources that can provide assistance, whether it’s food/bills assistance or support groups such as Al-Anon or Celebrate Recovery.”
Your church can be a place for parents to find help and information. Grace Ann suggests, “Leaders could invite Christian counselors to provide psychoeducation and tools to normalize the stressors each family may be experiencing. Hosting a virtual platform could make it accessible, too.”
(As children’s leaders, often we’re unsure what to say or how to respond to a family in crisis. Easy-to-access resources—like this simple handbook—offer tips on what to say…and not to say.)
Integrate Scripture-based self-regulation strategies for kids.
Karen sees a special opportunity for churches to give kids Jesus-centered social and emotional tools. She says, “So much of what we are seeing in education is the need for social/emotional tools. Churches have a great opportunity to teach children coping skills. Mindfulness is so threaded through the Bible, it’s a shame to not share ways for kids to self-regulate using the Word of God. For example, you might teach children to “breathe in” the Fruit of the Spirit, rely on the “Be-attitudes,” imagine they’re fortified with the Armor of God, or recall comforting words of a Christmas song. Kids can discover the power of breathing out fears, anxiety, loneliness, disappointments, and hard things.
Make it personal.
Make sure that kids and families don’t feel like a face in the crowd. Take time to reach out and show Jesus’ unconditional love to kids in crisis, in person. John suggests how important it is to know kids personally. “Taking the time for a personal note, present, or gesture lets [kids in crisis] know you see them, you know they are working through some hard stuff, and you have their back. With young kids, this might just be a little gift. With older kids, this is the emotional support they need.”
Organize a Christmas store for families in need.
Karen suggests a method to meet needs in a way that partners with parents and maintains dignity. “Many families in need receive help from organizations in town and from local churches. From my experience, it is best practice to let the adults in the family help decide what children would like as far as gifts. Letting them even “shop” from what is donated. The gifts should always come from the caregiver. It may make a church feel good to drop off the gifts to the kids or make them come to church to receive anything, but it’s degrading to family members.”
Share the good news!
As you interact with families, tell them about Jesus. Karen suggests using a nativity to tell the story of Christmas, noting, “It’s powerful to explain the pieces of a Nativity scene, since most kids see them everywhere.”
You can remind children that Jesus, our Immanuel, is with them and loves them no matter what. John reminds ministry leaders, “The most basic and most obvious answer I go to is to simply preach the gospel. In the end, we’re counting on the Holy Spirit to work in [families’] lives. What we can do is share the truth in an easily understandable way and then pray that God would use [our efforts] to meet them where they are.”
Jesus still welcomes children and their families, regardless of their circumstances. When you intentionally create resources, programming, and relationships to support them, you’re being Jesus’ hands and feet in our world today. So thank you!
Want more ideas for family ministry this Christmas? Check out these ideas!
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