The holiday season looks and sounds so picturesque, calming, and enjoyable in songs and movies – everyone sitting together in front of the fireplace, going ice-skating, making snowmen, giving beautiful gifts, singing carols, and eating and laughing while enjoying each other’s company. In reality, this time of year can be very stressful for many people and families – whether due to financial strains, tension between family members, schedules being overbooked, or kids throwing fits, the holidays can prove difficult to manage. But it doesn’t have to be this way! If we can incorporate simple stress-relief strategies, both for ourselves and for our kids, and keep our focus on the big picture, we can truly enjoy this time of year and create lasting memories to reflect upon in the future! Below are some tips on how to make this happen:
Create a visual calendar that kids can refer to
Just as we schedule and plan our time for this busy season, our kids also need to know what to expect! By knowing what’s coming next, kids will feel less stressed about activities, and can look forward to what these plans entail! Make this a fun family activity by creating the calendar together! Be sure to include in your calendar start and end dates of school vacation, holiday parties and other family gatherings. For divorced families, including the parenting time schedule can help decrease any difficulty with transitioning from one house to the next. In addition, it can be fun to schedule activities like sledding, baking cookies, play dates or Christmas caroling so your children have activities to look forward to.
Avoid overextending or taking on more than your family can handle
Prioritize your immediate family’s needs and don’t be afraid to say, “Unfortunately, we can’t make it this year.” Putting too much on your plate for one day can negatively impact the overall goal of spending quality time celebrating together. Find a balance that works for your family. If you feel there is a need to decline an invitation but don’t want to hurt feelings be sure to validate the other person’s feelings while explaining your reasoning fully. Some still may become upset but stay focused on taking care of yourself and your family first.
Keep things in perspective and be present in the moment
If stress arises, try to consider the situation in a broader context and avoid blowing events out of proportion. Find the humor in the chicken you burned and the trip you took back home because you forgot to bring the presents. Remind yourself you own a carpet cleaner when food spills or there is muddy snow tracked through the house. There is power in our thoughts. Set the example for your children that when the unexpected happens, you make the most of it and stay focused on the “big picture.” The holidays about family and enjoying time together. Focus on that time and enjoy each experience. Don’t miss out on the present moment by worrying about what’s coming next or whether or not the day goes exactly as planned.
Take care of yourself
With so many sounds, sights, smells, and interactions with other people, it’s easy for our bodies and minds to become overloaded and overstimulated. This can especially be true for children. Taking a break to read, go for a walk, or listen to music gives us a chance to re-charge. If you’re feeling the need to “take a breather” and use one of these techniques, allow yourself that time. Also, encourage your children to do the same if you notice them becoming escalated. The holiday events will be waiting when you return and you will have a much easier time enjoying them after a brief downtime. Scheduling family downtown during the day can also be a way to prevent overstimulation of family members.
Be mindful of your children’s unique characteristics and developmental stages
It is ok for expectations to be slightly different for each child at family gatherings or other holiday events. Expecting your shy child to hold conversations with distant relatives, your toddler to sit quietly at the table for an hour, or your child who struggles with transitions to go to 4 different houses in one day will only cause increased stress on both you and your children. For those situations that may seem more unavoidable, try to be as accommodating as possible. For example, bring games or activities for your child with attention difficulties or plan a quiet family movie night for your children who are easily overstimulated after a full day.
Look for the opportunities to teach the value in giving
With all of the toy ads and talk of Santa, it’s natural for children to become excited about receiving presents. This time of year is a great opportunity to also teach generosity and service. One of the most significant ways children learn is by observing. By intentionally finding time to make scarves for the homeless, bake cookies for the elderly or send cards to soldiers overseas, we are building foundations and teaching important values to our children. Some families have gone to the extreme of adopting a family living in poverty and spending the money they normally would have on each other on a family with a much higher need. There are numerous programs and churches in the community that help coordinate these holiday adoptions. In addition, encouraging our children to create unique gifts for family members also reinforces the importance of giving. Handmade gifts often require much more thought and time and hold more meaning than a store bought gift.
Start your own family traditions
Remember that the best gift you can give your children is your time. All the presents in the world can’t measure up to quality time and undivided attention. The experience of every year seeing the Nutcracker, building snowmen, driving to see light shows or baking cookie will become tradition the whole family looks forward to and enjoys. Let this season be one where your family creates lasting memories.
Encourage New Year’s resolutions
Use the New Year as an opportunity to reflect back on the previous year and to talk about both individual and family goals for the future year. Creating a family culture that normalizes each family member having strengths and weaknesses can benefit everyone. There is no such thing as a perfect parent and there is no such thing as a perfect child. And that’s ok. Teach your children about the importance of having goals and supporting each other in achieving them. Life is a process.
There may be many possible causes of increased stress during the holidays, but with some preparation and effort to stay focused on the overall needs of your family, the picturesque image of the holidays often found in movies and songs can be a reality. If additional support is needed during or after the holidays the counseling and multi-disciplinary group at BRAINS are available to help throughout the year. Please contact our staff for more information on services available to further support you and your family during the time.
Authors: Diana Osipsov, LMSW
Jennifer Reminga, LMSW, CAAC