Surviving the holidays: 5 tips for parents struggling with stress, chaos and the comparison trap

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5 holiday survival tips parents need to avoid losing their minds

5 holiday survival tips parents need to avoid totally losing their minds

Many of us grew up eagerly awaiting the holiday season — the gifts, the decorations, the yummy food, the time off from school and the warm feelings of family togetherness. When we became parents, sharing these things with our kids was supposed to be just as magical. Yet the reality of the modern holiday season — which, for parents, starts as early as Halloween and lasts through New Year’s — is often the exact opposite of what we imagined it to be. We’re stuck preparing for holiday guests or holiday travel, planning for an abundance of events at school or in the community and tackling a holiday shopping list that rivals only Santa’s. The holiday “magic” is generally replaced by an inordinate amount of stress and exhaustion. 

According to Catherine Jackson, a licensed psychologist and board-certified neurotherapist, many of her patients say they are inundated with stress around the holidays. Parental burnout is quite common, she says.  

But the holidays don’t have to be this way, Jackson assures. She and other experts say proactive stress management steps might be all it takes to bring back some of that holiday magic we all wistfully remember and crave for our kiddos. 

Here are five common holiday stressors that many parents experience, along with tried-and-true tips for coping from both experts and parents who’ve been there. 

1. Perfectionism

Katie Cloyd, a mom of two from Nashville, Tennessee, feels a great deal of pressure to curate a perfect holiday dinner. 

“The pressure for me comes from tradition,” says Cloyd, who lives far from extended family and feels that it’s entirely up to her to create holiday memories for her boys that are similar to her own from childhood.

Yet, when her husband suggested it would be smoother and less stressful if they went out for dinner instead — he suggested Chinese food — she hesitated. 

“I feel so much pressure to make my kids’ Christmas memories super-traditional that I can’t fathom not making a big meal and sitting at the table together to eat it,” says Cloyd. “Not because I even enjoy it. Just because that’s what moms do … right? I feel a lot of pressure to make my kids’ life perfect, especially as it pertains to special occasions. I don’t feel so guilty if I mess up a random Tuesday, but they only get so many Christmases as kids …”

How to cope:

“Parents receive a barrage of messages about what makes good parents,” says Jackson.  “Messages from social media, family members, commercials and images in the media and sometimes interactions with other parents, online and face to face.”

For example, a perfectly curated holiday picture your friend or a celebrity shares on social media might make you feel that all families have it together during the holiday season or that everyone but you has the money and wealth to go “all out” for the holidays.  

Jackson believes social media is probably the biggest culprit in terms of feeding us unhealthy messages about what it means to be a “good” parent during the holidays. Her advice? Set realistic expectations, and consider taking a social media hiatus during the holiday season.

“Since social media can create a great deal of stress for parents, particularly during the holidays, significantly reduce or avoid it so that you are not pressured to purchase items to feel like a good parent or feel bad because you can’t buy particular things,” Jackson says.

2. Pressure to recreate the magic of our childhoods

Like many parents, Heather Clark, a mom of two from Port Washington, New York, wants to recreate the holiday magic for her kids that she remembers from her childhood. “I try hard to rekindle the excited, warm, fuzzy feelings these holidays used to stir in me,” she says. 

Unfortunately, the reality of making magic isn’t that simple.

“I do have a few moments when I enjoy them still,” says Clark. “But mostly the holidays are just work, a lot of work and stress and time and money and conflict.”

How to cope:

The trick here, according to Ann Lagges, a pediatric psychologist with Riley Children’s Health in Indianapolis, is to adjust your expectations and let go of traditions that no longer serve you. 

“In some cases, things are done for the holidays just because they were always done in a certain way,” says Lagges. 

But even if a holiday tradition dates back to your childhood, twisting yourself into knots to recreate it now won’t necessarily elicit the sentimental feelings you are aiming for. In fact, it’s important to recognize that just because you enjoyed something as a child, doesn’t mean your child will or should feel the same way. 

“Tradition can be a powerful driver at the holidays and at times can make things that should be fun seem like a duty,” Lagges says. 

It’s a good idea to listen to that feeling. 

“If something isn’t fun or it seems to be adding stress, it probably needs to go,” she says. 

3. Financial stress

The holidays are supposed to be a time for appreciating loved ones and showing them how much we care. Instead, the media bombards us with messages saying the best way to express love is to shell out big bucks on material possessions. Far too often, all of this translates into buying extravagant gifts for everyone in our lives, whether or not we can afford them. 

During the holiday season, “financial stress is often the number one stressor,” says Jackson. 

And it’s not just presents for the kids! Add on the gifts that you are expected to buy for co-workers, teachers, extended family and more, and you’ve got a recipe for an extreme amount of money-related S-T-R-E-S-S.

How to cope:

Be honest with yourself and your family about your budget, says Jackson. It’s better to deal with stress on the front end — during the planning stage — rather than after an overzealous shopping spree. Figure out in advance what you can afford, and allocate a certain amount to each recipient on your list. Make a budget and stick to it. You may still have some worries, but at least there will be no surprises.

It’s also completely possible to broaden the concept of holiday giving beyond big spending. Here are a few options to try with your family: 

  • Try the four-gift rule: Carter uses the “four-gift rule” to focus on meaningful gift-giving and keep spending under control for her family. Instead of receiving a limitless pile of presents stacked under the tree, each child gets four simple gifts: “something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read.” 

  • Give experiences instead of things: “Community parties, free days at museums and things that are always free (e.g. a walk in the snow at a public park) are good options,” Lagges says. If you are looking to make these free options feel more “gifty,” make a coupon book of experiences for your loved ones to choose from. They can use some now and save the rest for a rainy (or snowy) day. 

4. Keeping up with the Joneses

If you spend time on Instagram or Facebook, it might seem that every parent besides you is able to “do it all” during the holidays — and do it well. It’s so easy to feel like we are failing somehow if we can’t recreate those picture-perfect moments with our kids. 

Clark can relate, especially during the Halloween costume frenzy.

“I’m just not that crafty Pinterest mom, and it makes me stressed and down on myself,” she says, sharing that she often ends up dressing her kids up in store-bought costumes and feeling consumed with guilt.

How to cope:

Most parents don’t even realize how much the comparison game is contributing to stress, says Lagges, and once they become more mindful of that fact, they can begin to let go of unrealistic expectations.

“Sometimes parents feel pressure to do things [based on] how they think they’ll be perceived by other parents rather than what will actually be the most fun for the kids,” says Lagges. 

For instance, “Making Pinterest-worthy cookies might impress other parents, but maybe the kids would actually have more fun squirting icing and sprinkling candies all over store-bought or slice-and-bake sugar cookies themselves,” Lagges says. 

5. Jam-packed schedules

Families are often grappling with the issue of being spread too thin, says Lagges. “Families try to do too much and pack holiday schedules too tightly with activities,” she adds.

The reasons parents feel compelled to pack it all in? 

“Sometimes it can be a desire to try to please everyone even if it is unrealistic to do so,” says Lagges. “Other times, it is just a result of adding without ever eliminating anything.”

How to cope:

Kristen Carter, a mom of two grown children from West Babylon, New York, decided that the best way to preempt an overscheduled holiday was to make her celebrations a multi-day event and not fixate on celebrating with everyone on the same day. 

“My husband and I decided we couldn’t do everything and see everyone we wanted or needed to see,” says Carter. “We ‘moved’ Christmas Day to Dec. 24. By doing Santa and presents a little early, we could be leisurely about it and not rush through the day.” 

The tradition started before her first son even started school, and her younger son has been celebrating Christmas on Dec. 24 his entire life.

“Before they went to school, the date didn’t matter,” Carter says. “After they started school, there were always enough days off that they didn’t realize Christmas came a day earlier than for their friends.” 

Carter says she and her family often spend Christmas Day driving to Pennsylvania to be with her extended family.

Bottom line: Take care of yourself

Besides becoming more self-aware of your holiday stress triggers, perhaps the most important (and most often neglected) way to avoid burnout during the holiday season is to prioritize self-care. 

“This may seem like yet another thing added to the to-do list,” says Jackson. “However, parents should make [self-care] a non-negotiable part of the holiday season.”  

Self-care around the holidays might look like meditating, asking for help or making sure to eat well and exercise. You can think of practicing self-care as a gift to yourself, one that you most definitely deserve. And, as Jackson says, if you are happier and enjoying yourself more, you’ll be able to spread that joy to the rest of your family … because the truth is, parents can’t take care of others without taking care of themselves first.

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