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Tips for Managing Stress Around the Holidays

My all-time favorite holiday movie is National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. It so brilliantly sums up how chaotic and stressful the holidays can be, especially when Mrs. Ellen Griswold responds to her teenage daughter who has to share a bedroom with her younger brother, “I don’t know what to say but it’s Christmas and we are all in misery.”

The holidays are supposed to be fun right? So then why aren’t we having fun?

Holidays are full of unpredictability and uncertainty. They can be a time of high emotions and sensory overload. We can be sick. Being sick in general around the holidays can be miserable as is but being sick in the time of Covid can be even more worrisome. We may be under financial pressure or facing various challenges in our workplaces. Our windows of tolerance are often much smaller around this time, and we may be triggered more often, even by things that might not have previously bothered us.

There are tons of changes to regular routines and structures with extended periods of time out of school and work. Extended family members, who may be around more during this period, can be critical and judgmental of parenting responses and interventions. This can be especially challenging when we are working on reparenting ourselves and breaking intergenerational patterns. When we get triggered and defensive, we tend to fall into our old habits and patterns like yelling or walking away.

We can also easily fall into using labels like “naughty” and “nice” with our kids. Even the Elf on the Shelf concept is about “spying” on children’s behavior and then reporting back to Santa about whether they deserve anything this year.

This year has been hard enough to now have the Elf on the Shelf judging us too. Phew.

Here are 6 easy to practice tips to consider this holiday season when feeling stressed and worn thin.

  • Manage your own levels of stress. Increase mindfulness and self-care, both individually and as a family. Of course, time and capacity can be limited, but even dedicating 10 minutes each morning to closing your eyes and setting your intention for the day will help. Because your window of tolerance may be smaller than normal, try to be as proactive as possible about your triggers and engage in more reflective practice when you know those moments tend to occur. Step away when you need to. Repair when you’ve made a mistake. Explicitly practice mindfulness in your home, neighborhood and out on walks. Try a neighborhood safari or watch guided progressive muscle relaxation on Youtube.
  • Try to keep yourself and your kids active as much as possible. Get outdoors when you can. Sunshine and movement help manage the load of emotional stress. Add water if you or your kids are super dysregulated (bath time, shower time, take a drink through a straw, splash cold water on face) as water helps settle the nervous system.
  • Practice moments of gratitude with your family. It’s easy to get caught up in the season of indulgence and forget how to remain grounded and appreciative of the things we do have. This can be done in several different ways. One way is to have each person in your family express something they are grateful for and the emotions and body sensations they experience when thinking about it. Another is to keep a gratitude jar where family members get to write down different things they are grateful for throughout the month and then review them together on New Year’s Day. You could create a gratitude ritual like writing thank you notes to different people each week for even the smallest moments of appreciation. Perhaps an intention for your family might be to volunteer or donate your time in some way. Practicing and modeling gratitude leads to empathy building for your children, too.
  • Set realistic expectations for this time for both you and your children. We often build up holiday time with unrealistic expectations that are simply impossible to live up to and then feel disappointed or ashamed when they don’t pan out that way. Try your best to have an intention mindset instead of a perfection mindset. Remember that you and your children will probably lose it at least once (maybe twice, maybe ten times). You can practice moments of self-compassion and teach your kids to do the same by repeating words of affirmation around humility and growth. “I am trying my best every day and it’s OK if I don’t always get it right. I just keep trying” is one I use.
  • Have conversations to help prepare your children for what to expect if you are attending or hosting big events. Try to prep your kids well in advance for any major changes in routine and then review it routinely. If you are going to a place you’ve never been, discuss how uncomfortable it can be when you don’t know what it’s like and what you do to help make yourself feel safer and more in control. This could be repeating a mantra in your head, taking three deep breaths, or focusing on your feet on the ground. Give them the information that you know: photos of people, photos of the place you are visiting, etc. Answer any questions or concerns they might have. Talk about signals they can use if they are feeling overwhelmed or needing support. Give your kids choices in little things like what they can wear or what they want to eat.
  • Discuss plans of action regarding body consent like hugging or kissing, and practice how to respond to boundary pushing by relatives. This can be an especially challenging one around the holidays. Depending on the ages of your children, let them decide how they want to say hello and goodbye to family members. Encourage your children to voice their likes and dislikes, and back your children up when family members inevitably want to push back or minimize. If you are in a relationship, discuss with your significant other about exactly what you plan to say as a response. You can even have it written down.

Maybe just focus on one or two of these tips if that feels more realistic or manageable. Remember, at the end of the day, do what you can when you can. Make sure to follow my Instagram for more tips and parenting tricks for this holiday season @lindseybolandllc

-Lindsey Boland LCSW, Certified Synergetic Play Therapist

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