When you think of the holiday season, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s time with family and friends or holiday gifts? Do you think of seeing the joy on your children’s faces or experiencing holiday traditions as a family? The holiday season can bring a lot of joy, but for some, the holiday season also makes them think of something else–stress. 

In addition to caring for children, work, and all the responsibilities of everyday life, the added planning of big holiday gatherings, buying gifts, and organizing activities can overwhelm many parents. Let’s consider a few tips to avoid holiday stress to lessen the overwhelm and bring back the joy.

Finances: The “Silent Stressor” of the Holidays

For many families, the financial burden of the holidays is the ‘silent stressor’ of the season. While many people do not like to discuss their finances, we know from survey data that this issue weighs heavily on the minds of many during the holidays. With the expectations of gift-giving, decorating, and more, the holidays can be a big investment of money for families. A recent survey of 1,228 adults conducted by an American banking company found that 45% of respondents listed financial issues as a top stressor during the holiday season. 

Parents, in particular, may feel the burden of financial pressure during the holidays. Children often develop long wish lists of gifts that they desire for the holidays. Despite efforts to de-emphasize material items, parents may feel the pressure to purchase many (or all) items on their children’s wish lists. 

Tips For Coping With Holiday Financial Stress:

Talk openly with children. Being open with children about the family’s financial values can be helpful. Experts like psychologist Pauline Wallin suggest that children as young as 6 or 7 can understand the concept of a budget. This doesn’t mean you need to discuss specifics like money amounts or salaries, but budgeting can be useful. Explaining your family’s values regarding gift-giving versus spending time together can help children focus less on material items and more on the togetherness aspect of the holidays.

Create budget-friendly gifts. It can be fun and easy to involve children in handmade (and budget-friendly) gift-making. Relying on children’s natural creativity with a few craft supplies can be a magic combination for creating some meaningful handmade gifts for family and friends.

Focus on giving and sharing. While children know first-hand that receiving gifts feels fun and exciting, they may not be as aware of the “feel good” factor that comes with giving. Discuss with children how rewarding it feels to give instead of receiving a gift. Additionally, use the holidays as an opportunity to help children experience the joy of sharing their time through acts of service to others. Many organizations like food pantries, charities, and service groups need extra volunteers during the holidays. Research finds that volunteering is linked to better psychological health. In other words, a focus on service to others is a “win-win.”

Unrealistic Holiday Expectations

Another common “unseen” holiday stressor for parents relates to mindset. Sometimes parents have very high and sometimes unrealistic expectations of how the holidays will play out. Oftentimes parents feel pressure to make the holidays “picture perfect” for their children and families. This can lead to trying to plan or attend too many events and the expectation that their children’s behavior will be “picture perfect” as well. Psychologists who study life events like Heather Servaty-Seib argue that most life events, even holidays, include aspects of both gain and loss. What causes the stress is that individuals often only think of the gain (or happiness) brought by the holidays and do not consider the potential losses (or negative aspects) like family conflicts or grief experienced during the season. This sets up unrealistic expectations and can lead to negative self-judgment

DeStressing Holidays

Tips for a New Holiday Mindset:

Try to have realistic expectations. When considering holiday plans, try to factor in issues that might arise or things that might not go as planned. With children, this might mean discussing with them your expectations for how many gifts they might receive or expectations about holiday gatherings. 

Additionally, expectation-setting might involve knowing when to say “no” to certain events or outings. Although it is tempting to try to do everything, knowing your limits can help make the events you attend more enjoyable

Focus on the big picture. In all the stress of the holidays, it’s easy to lose sight of the larger perspective of the season. Even if your holiday dinner is a flop or the children misbehave, the bigger picture of holiday togetherness remains the same. By focusing on your values for the holidays and putting less emphasis on all the details, you will be able to enjoy the season more fully.

Self-Care During the Holidays

Although the issue of self-care is a hot topic for parents year-round, the holiday season seems to bring it to the forefront. Amid the scramble to prepare for events, purchase gifts, and host gatherings, parents often feel stretched to the limit during this season. Caring for oneself both physically and mentally can often fall to the bottom of the to-do list.

Not caring for oneself, however, can make things more stressful during the holidays. If stress and lack of self-care build up to parental burnout, children may experience the brunt of it. Research on parental burnout finds that when parents experience burnout, they can become more likely to use coercive or punitive discipline practices with children. In other words, neglecting one’s own needs makes it more difficult to care for others. Although most parents know this in their heart, the challenges of the season often lead to forgetting this lesson.

Self-care can include things like adequate sleep, healthy eating, exercise and time with friends as well. Parents may find it tempting to neglect any of these aspects of self-care during the busy holiday season.

Tips for bringing back self-care:

Prioritize sleep. As difficult as it is during a busy season, parents should try to get adequate sleep most nights. Parents could try giving themselves a bedtime just as they do their children. Some might find calming apps for their phone a nice way to release stress and drift into sleep at night. Parents can put aside their to-do list knowing that getting enough sleep at night will help them function more efficiently the next day.

Discover non-negotiable needs. One way to put self-care back on the to-do list is by prioritizing your non-negotiable needs. What self-care needs do you find most necessary for well-being and top functioning? For some parents, sleep might be the highest need, for others it might be exercise. Discover what your own top needs are and strive to meet them each day. 

Although self-care does take time away from other tasks, ultimately it makes parents healthier and more effective at their daily activities. When you find time to care for yourself a bit, the daily stresses of life don’t seem so overwhelming.

Bring more peace and enjoyment back to the holiday season this year by considering how to manage the stresses of the season. Instead of viewing this season as just something to “get through” or “manage,” you can approach this season with a sense of joyful anticipation. By intentionally considering your financial situation, your expectations, and finding time for a little self-care, the holiday season can be filled with more meaning and joy for your family.

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Amy Webb, Ph.D.Amy is a parenting writer who is passionate about bringing child development research into the lives of parents, so they can use it to inform their decision-making. In her writing, she brings together her research background as well as real-life experience as a mom to two rambunctious boys. When she’s not reading (parenting books or mystery novels) Amy enjoys hiking, cooking, and watching her sons play hours and hours of baseball. 

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

Preview blurb: Are you feeling stressed by the holiday season? Too many items on your to-do list and no time for yourself? Check out this post for real-life tips on handling the holidays without the stress. Bring back the joy to the holidays and enjoy time with your family this year.

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