As the holiday season quickly approaches, many mental health professionals become acutely aware of the impact of poverty on clients. Regardless of your philosophical perspective on consumerism and indulgence, it’s difficult to not be impacted by the plight of others, especially this time of the year. Children are particularly vulnerable to feeling a sense of longing, sadness and isolation as they hear their peers talk about their Christmas lists and desires. For children whose parents are unemployed, absent or simply can’t afford to buy things, it is a very difficult time. Recently, a young girl confessed to me that it was hard to come to school during the
holiday season. Her family has, ‘nothing’ and she was feeling a sense of dread with Christmas morning approaching. She was certain that when she wakes up, there will be no gifts and if lucky, they’ll have a decent dinner. In fact, she reported that she’d be lucky to wake up with her mom in a sober state. Her conversation flowed, without any prompting or interruption from me. She just needed a place to put her burdens. She did and with almost no expression of feelings. This story is about more than Christmas and the lack of gifts. I mean, not getting gifts isn’t the end of the world and that which doesn’t kill us, will make us stronger, right? Well yes it does and the best gift I can impart to this child is, the gift of resilience and perspective. I can encourage her to focus on the positive and tell her that this will make her stronger. Yet, the lump in my throat was growing larger as I heard her story. It grows because it’s the third such story I’ve heard in the past several hours. I feel a sense of helplessness which I’m certainly pales in comparison to the daily experiences of these children. I have to be mindful of falling into the helplessness pit or I will become ineffective as a therapist and an empowered being. I take many deep breaths and stay with my feelings. Practicing mindfulness has helped me to avoid burn out and be a more effective healer. I especially need to remember my mindfulness practice during this season. Being mindful allows me to hear the stories and stay present with my clients who are expressing such despair. We can’t change that holidays happen and that poverty will always impact children. There are things we can do to help children cope with circumstances beyond their control. As mentioned above, we have to instill a sense of resiliency. There are many examples of people who grew up under difficult circumstances who later created success in their lives. Oprah Winfrey is a great example. I also think there’s some value in helping children to find positives in their circumstances. This can be difficult, but I think encouraging focus on the positive creates a sustainable way of thinking that will only benefit them as they get older. Every year, my practice ‘adopts’ a family for the holidays. The therapists are quite generous and giving to the family we choose. During the year, I pick up inexpensive toys, clothing, and I also find unused, nearly new items from my house and allow children to ‘shop’ for themselves or family members. . This is very popular because they enjoy giving as much as they do receiving. This is fun and fulfilling. It decreases my sense of helplessness and sadness from the stories I hear.