All of us react to stress - sometimes with physical symptoms, like headaches or upset stomach, or with irritability, depression or overeating. Children may respond by behaving poorly, withdrawing from activities or being overly active or cranky. Here are a few suggestions that may help you get more joy out of the season by reducing or controlling holiday stress.
By Janice Lovelace, Ph.D.
December can be a busy, activity-packed month for parents and children alike. And while we may dream that everything flows smoothly - family members get along, the big meals you make are loved by everyone, your shopping goes smoothly and your children are always well behaved - the reality often makes it the most stressful time of year.
Use these tips to make this holiday season be more of what you want it to be:
1. Be realistic. You can't do everything portrayed on TV or in magazines. If you try to do too much, you and your children will be too exhausted to enjoy it.
Be realistic about expectations of family and friends. No one is perfect and the holidays won't suddenly make them so. Family members will be the way they always are. If siblings fight, they won't suddenly stop just because it is a holiday. When choosing which friends to spend time with during this month, surround yourself with the supportive ones. There isn't time or energy to spend with the ones who agitate you.
Help your children be realistic about what to expect as well. Model for them that the holidays are about more than gifts. Teach them how to handle envy when a friend gets the toy that they wanted. What should they do when family get-togethers are filled with tension or adults are arguing? Think of ways to help the child who is splitting time between two families in different households.
2. Reassess. As a family, decide which activities are important and which can be eliminated. Are there things that you do because you have always done them? Have you stopped enjoying them? Have your children outgrown them? Look at how you can do the activity differently or make this the year to let it go.
3. Start a new tradition. Find one activity the family enjoys and create a new tradition this year. Rituals that occur every year are comforting to children and help create positive holiday memories. Focus on the meaning of the holiday. Talk to your children about what is important to you during this season. (see Adopting Memory-making Holiday Traditions)
4. Prioritize. What has to be done and when? Plan ahead on how to use your time. If you plan and schedule activities, you won't feel so pressured. Some parents find a calendar of holiday activities helpful. Include times to bake those cookies, or a chunk of time for gift wrapping. Start shopping early, so you aren't trying to find something important the day before you need it. Make a shopping list so you won't overspend on spur-of-the-moment purchases. Tell your younger children what the final plans are early enough to help them get ready for family visits, dinners or other big events.
5. Keep your routine. During this hectic time, changing the normal family routine can be stressful to children. As much as possible, stick to regular mealtimes and bedtime. If there is a big activity, make sure your child is rested and fed. Keep a snack handy for an afternoon activity that lasts longer than anticipated. Help reduce the impact of schedule changes by telling your child what to expect. If your child is slow to adjust, tell her what to expect, who will be there and how long you will stay. Once you get to the activity, stay close by until she feels comfortable.
6. Delegate responsibilities. Ask for help around the house or divide tasks among adults and older children. Can everyone pitch in to help bake the cookies? Make a production line, and you may start a new tradition. Let children wrap their presents for others. The gift may not be wrapped "perfectly," but children will have fun in the process.
7. Simplify. Plan easy meals, especially on those days when there are other commitments. How big a holiday dinner do you have to cook? Suggest a potluck with your family and friends, instead of having one person do all the work. Cut down on how many gifts you give. For example, if you get gifts for all your nieces and nephews, consider one gift for the family (like a family board game). When wrapping gifts, choose one or two colors of paper. In our house, each person has a color. It makes it easier to wrap, and easy for all to know "which one is mine." Do you have to send a holiday card to everyone you know? With so many people having e-mail, how about sending your holiday note electronically this year?
8. Plan for fun. What do you enjoy? Plan time to go to see The Nutcracker or drive around to see holiday lights or get together to go to a local tree farm. Visit the children's museum or go to story hour at the library or local bookstore. What activities are low or no cost?
9. Explore how other cultures celebrate the season. What are some other holidays that are different than yours? Are there unique ways other countries or cultures celebrate the same occasion (like Christmas)? Download a selection of songs from around the world, or learn a new recipe from another culture's celebration.
10. Carve out time for yourself. This time of year, parents find themselves committing to others; but not scheduling time for themselves. Make a little quiet time - maybe a long bath or a walk by yourself or time to read. Make sure you are getting enough rest. A short nap may help you be energetic for that evening party. What about a special day or evening time for you and your partner or a good friend to reconnect? Children also need some unscheduled downtime to recuperate from all the running around. They too will enjoy time with a best friend to just play, without doing a holiday activity.
Finally, roll with the punches. Even though there will be days when things won't work out as you planned, try to find the humor in the mishaps. One year, our family got to the woods to cut a tree and realized we had forgotten the ax. We ended up using what tools we had in the back of the truck. It is one of the more humorous stories that we still retell. And remember, in another month it will be over. Do what you can to make the holiday season a pleasant memory for your family.
Janice Lovelace, Ph.D., is a child psychologist.
Updated August 2012