Cold Comfort

Hope for families facing dark days during a season of twinkling lights.

While T.V. commercials are selling warm and fuzzy fantasies about joyful people, glamorous parties and carefree gift-giving celebrations, Ottawa families are facing a reality that may not be so jolly.

“It is normal that this time of year is more difficult for very many people,” Ann Carson-Tempier and Franca Didiomete point out. They’re from Catholic Family Service Ottawa (CFSO). And if you’re having a tough time, they urge you to recognize you’re not alone and to take advantage of local services. “Turning to an agency or organization for support is, for most people, a short-term event, punctual in nature, but it can relieve stress.” It can also allow you and your family to function better.

Reality Check

If those TV commercials keep dancing through your head, pay attention to the people you know. From the octogenarian couple trying to manage on a fixed income to the single downtown resident with no family and few resources to the Kanata mother who’s employed full-time and short on funds and energy, real life stories are all around.

Sue Henderson*, for one, is not looking forward to hosting the annual holiday gathering of relatives. Ten or 12 family members are expected to show up for dinner at her place. “It’s a lot of work, especially since not everybody appreciates the effort,” she points out, adding family harmony isn’t a guarantee either. At the thought of all the cooking, cleaning, expectations and cost, Sue says, “I panic.” Counsellors from The Counselling Group (TCG) at Jewish Family Services often hear such stories, especially as the winter season approaches.

There are countless others. Many local families have no extra cash for carefree gift giving, let alone winter tires or new winter boots for kids who’ve outgrown the old ones. The kids? They still want what they see on T.V. CFSO’s Ann and Franca have something to say about that.

“There is a focus on material goods during the holiday season that can be hard on poor families, but also on middle-class families,” they acknowledge. “Children do not always understand budgetary constraints and, with the continual marketing directed towards them, they want the latest toy or gadget advertised.” Families that do not celebrate Christmas, Hanukah or Kwanzaa are not immune to the hype. Both kids and adults can feel socially isolated and the youngsters may pester their parents to buy them gifts anyway. During an extended annual holiday season that doesn’t include all, families from every background and neighbourhood can be left wanting.

Tis SAD season

Still trying to conjure up joy and seasonal spirit? Oy. Relax already. Here in Ottawa, cold, miserable weather can sap the spirits of young and old. “There is a recognized condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which occurs when the days get shorter, particularly in November and December. The absence of daylight and less sunlight may bring on depression or lack of motivation,” CFSO’s Ann and Franca remind people.

So be kind to yourself. After all, it takes more time and effort to go anywhere, especially with kids, since there are mitts to find, snowsuits to put on, windshields to defrost and icy walkways and roads to navigate. “As the days grow shorter and inclement weather is more common, people become more isolated from their regular support systems and may not be able to access some of their usual coping skills, such as going for a walk or talking with a friend,” notes TCG’s newsletter.

Grownups aren’t the only ones struggling. At Jewish Family Services, counsellors see kids who are wrestling with depression, anxiety or stress. Often, they report, the stress begins in September when kids head back to class and encounter both academic and peer pressure. As winter approaches, there’s no letup. “Children face many of their own unique challenges during this season, including stress at family gatherings … In separated or blended families; children can feel much distress as they try to share special experiences with each parent.” While all this is going on, school and social demands continue.

That’s a lot of pressure for all age groups. But there’s more. Practical stuff may also snow families under. Heating and electricity costs can add to budget concerns. Cabin fever and holiday drinking can impact mental health and parenting abilities. And physical health woes can range from family colds and flu bugs to injuries and cardiac problems from shovelling. Then there’s the call home from school during the busiest of days at work. “Jason is sick. Can you come to get him?” It’s a seasonal classic.

Nurturing Matters

Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to help your kids, your family and yourself. Family Services Ottawa (FSO) provides this advice:

• Take care of your body, mind and spirit; nurture your relationships.

• Give yourself permission to be imperfect.

• Have well established routines that allow for getting out in the morning in good time and getting homework done; have set bedtimes that allow time for winding down and getting lots of sleep.

• Connect with other families with children of similar ages; prearrange activities with friends; consider attending drop-in play groups at Ontario Early Years Centres.

• Take time for yourself; if you’re parenting with a partner, spend time doing something fun that has nothing to do with your children.

• Plan ahead; put money away for Christmas and holidays; budget for extra costs; say no.

• Have a regular game night; walk; get out in the sun; visit the library; swim; eat healthily; practice yoga, meditation and relaxation techniques; practice self-care; limit screen time; listen to music; read; use a DVD exercise program.

• Set limits and keep activities manageable.

• If you know that winters can be difficult for you, call now to arrange counselling as most places have a wait list of a few months.

Help is Here

Community Information Centre of Ottawa: Call 211 to learn about services and programs to meet your family’s needs. City of Ottawa: Call 311 to find out about local government supports.

Caring and Sharing Program (Christmas gift vouchers or food hampers):
Call 613 226-6434; see

Snowsuit Fund:
Call 613 746-5143; see

The Counselling Group at Jewish Family Services:
Call 613 722-2225 x 410; see

Catholic Family Service Ottawa:
Call 613 233-8478; see

Family Services Ottawa:
Call 613 725-3601; see

24-Hour Mental Health Crisis Line
Call 613 722-6914 or 1 866 996-0991 (toll-free).

*Name changed for privacy.


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