Christmas is an emotionally charged time of year. Lights, presents and talk of time with family usually  make people happy, but for many this season holds a lot of triggers. Hurts can be amplified when it seems like everyone else has the ideal life, opens the most sought-after presents, and enjoys pleasant, picture-perfect family time.

While this might be true for a percentage of your students, the reality is that many of your preteens and middle schoolers, whose brains are just waking up the realities of a complex life, aren’t sure how to navigate a new level of understanding that not everything in their world is perfect.

When they see their peers having a great time, they feel pressure to put on a happy face just because it’s Christmas! But things at home or school or with their friends might be a total mess, and that kind of pressure to pretend they don’t have a care in the world can lead to a stress and anxiety they’ve never dealt with before. So much so, that just walking through the doors of your ministries might be the hardest thing they do this Christmas.

How you create an emotionally safe place for your preteens to feel accepted, secure and cared for during this time of year is critical. Help them navigate some of the hurt they feel this time of year. 

Five Ways to Help Complex Kids Navigate Christmas Events

Give kids an out. 

You’ve planned all sorts of fun games and activities for your environments, but kids coming from a stress-filled home environment, full of anxiety about being a first-time visitor or with elevated sensory sensitivities are going to overwhelmed by the hype. Don’t force anyone to participate and have a planned “out” activity that lets them feel like they’re still involved without having to actively participate. Have an area of the room set up with alternative activities like card games, puzzles, coloring or craft activities for kids to engage with if they need a break from the party.  

Don’t leave anyone out. 

While they may not want to be chosen to play charades onstage, they still want to be be asked to join. Even if you think they’ll opt out of the activity, be sure every student is invited by name. Don’t pester and ask them to join repeatedly, but be sure to let them know that you’d love for them to participate however they feel comfortable. Let them know that it’s equally as awesome to choose the main activity as it is to choose the alternatives.  

Activities that keep all kids in mind. 

Many of the crafts we have kids make at Christmas feature photos of families or of kids themselves. Kids who’ve experienced any type of personal crisis or familial trauma may struggle to wade through the complexities of their feelings. Many might become anxious as they need to decide which family members to include in the photo. They may struggle with whether or not they like themselves enough frame their own picture. Keep your activities fun and neutral. Create crafts focused on the message of Christmas and the hope we have through Jesus. Maybe have kids create crafts they can use to serve someone else.

Service and Giving Projects. 

Consider how you frame your giving projects, especially those geared for families in your own community. If you’re collecting food or clothing for community food pantries, be mindful that some of the kids in your ministry are actually the beneficiaries of these programs. Be sure the focus of giving and serving others always comes from a place of no matter what God has given you, He always gives us a way to be able to help others.

Choose your words carefully.

Without meaning to, the words we use can make light of the situations kids face. Even when we mean well, we can use trite phrases that make overcoming life’s obstacles seem like it should be easy with just a little more faith. And while more faith is most likely a part of the healing process, many of these kids will need counseling and mentors and medication to truly heal from the pain they feel and the world they experience. Use words that express empathy and understanding, that offer hope and comfort, and don’t offer overly simplistic solutions to complex situations.

When we look at the kids and students in our environments, each one of them walks into the room with personal experience. Even the kids who look like they have it all together may have unspoken struggles and difficulties at home or school. When we plan our events with complex kids in mind, we end up creating events that all kids can enjoy and experience Jesus’ love and hope this season.

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