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Holidays: More Joy and Less Stress

by Robin Goodman, Ph.D. and the staff of the NYU Child Study Center

 boy with holiday gifts

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What causes stress during the holidays?

Holidays – whether for national, religious, or cultural reasons – have deep meaning and offer a time to reflect, remember, rekindle faith, or pay tribute to a particular heritage. But the holidays are more than just particular days on the calendar.

During the many weeks, events, and celebrations that make up the holiday season routines are disrupted and schedules become overloaded with special activities. Children are surrounded by material aspects of the holidays as well; the food, the parties, and the presents, which can cause excitement and even disappointment for children and confusion and difficulty for parents.

For families who have undergone a significant change during the year, perhaps because of death, illness, or divorce, the holiday season can be particularly challenging. On top of all this, the media often encourage stereotypes of the perfect, joyous holiday in a story book family setting, which do not always fit with reality.

Suggestions for maintaining meaning and managing stress during the holidays:

Find personal meaning

The reason for the holiday should be embraced and communicated to children. The holidays are a time for parents to practice and model the teachings of their faith as well as teach tolerance and understanding of those who are different.

The holidays can be a time to cultivate and teach the joy of giving. Giving and sharing can happen at all ages. Going through belongings to find no longer used toys or games to donate to a shelter, bringing food to the homebound, or volunteering at a holiday party in a hospital, allows children to experience the gift of selfless giving.

Children cherish memories and special time with family, not just gifts. Giving kids gift coupons for story time throughout the year, or spending time together baking cookies or making and wrapping presents help establish the spirit of giving and traditions that can be passed on to the next generation.

Create, maintain, and change traditions

There is comfort in predictability and celebrating events in the same way every year. Following established traditions can minimize the anxiety of planning and decision making. But it can be important to reassess gatherings and activities. Family situations change, relationships change, children get older, people get married, parents may move away. Discussing what works and what could be better are issues worth exploring.

Especially if there has been a divorce or death in a family, the first holidays can be tough. Often the anticipation of the first holiday after a tragedy is the hardest part. Planning ahead should involve thinking through what to keep from the past and what to change while realizing that the holidays may be a work in progress as a family adapts to changes. Talking about the holidays beforehand, being sensitive to how different people feel, and involving everyone in decision making to the appropriate degree – even children – can ease the transition to a new way of marking the holiday.

Have appropriate expectations

Children of different ages have different needs and reactions. Very young children do not have a sophisticated sense of time; thus it can be difficult for them to be good until "next month," or until "grandma comes," in order to get a present. They are also more prone to become upset when their schedules are disrupted. Thus even in the midst of holiday hustle and bustle, keeping to a routine as much as possible will ease everyone's stress. As children get older, they become more attuned to what is popular and may become insistent about "needing" certain gifts. It's important to be sensitive to their feelings about their peer group and the pressures they may feel while remaining true to your own family wishes. Parents and teens also may need to be flexible in striking a balance between celebrating with friends and spending time with family.

Keep a child's age, interests, and your own budget in mind when it comes to gift giving. Young children may appreciate board games as well as time with a grown up to play them; older children may be content with one special or "hot" gift rather than many that are less important. Lessons about saving and the value of family and friends can also be interwoven into conversations about gift giving and receiving.

Maintain a perspective about the season. Holidays are but one, two, or several days out of the year and a child's behavior throughout the year is what matters. Expecting too much from a child or putting too much focus on a particular event causes unnecessary pressure for everyone.

Monitor and manage stress levels

No doubt the "holidays" are different than the "every" day. It's important to be relaxed and flexible about certain rules; chores may not be fully completed, extra treats may be consumed. Making room for the unexpected is essential to making it through jam packed days and nights.

Excitement about an upcoming holiday or worry about being punished or judged can make even the best behaved child irritable or disobedient. Preparing kids for changes in schedules, describing new events, and being specific about what's expected of them will help them stay in control. When and how much detail to tell a child before an activity takes place depends on the age of the child; the older the child, the more information and more advance notice is appreciated.

People often find themselves stretched too thin and working overtime to get gifts bought, cards mailed, visits with relatives scheduled and still help kids get book reports done. It can be helpful to take a break, decide what is most important and even say "no" to certain invitations. Making a decision for quality over quantity of time makes everyone more relaxed and better able to truly enjoy the holidays.

This article was reviewed in November 2010.