From Bah, Humbug to Happy Holidays: Helping Children and Families Handle Holiday Stress

Eight out of every 10 families report high levels of stress during the holidays, according to the American Psychological Association. This can range from pressure to participate in multiple holiday activities to strain over holiday budgets and finances. With this in mind, Bradley Hospital is offering families tips for keeping stress at bay and focusing on what’s truly important this holiday season.

“One of the most important questions for a family to ask this season is, ‘What do I hope to look back on about this year, and what do I want my child’s memories to be?’ Chances are good it’s not a marathon shopping day at the mall with a stressed parent,” said Anne Walters, PhD, clinical director of the Children’s Partial Program at Bradley Hospital. “Think instead of choosing a few special activities that can form the basis of a holiday tradition. Children rely on ritual as a source of comfort, safety and connection – never more so than at busy times of the year.”

Walters recommends parents choose a few activities that focus on values that they want to impart to their children. “If you are a religious family, choosing an activity that centers on connection to your church, synagogue or mosque may be high on your list,” said Walters. “If you are a family that values social justice, perhaps you will want to engage in a family volunteer opportunity with a local charity or service organization. If you are a family that values the outdoors, perhaps you will make a day of cutting your own tree or taking a nature hike focused on the winter environment.”

If forming a tradition doesn’t work for this year, think of a family discussion in the fall to choose for the year after. “As a parent, try not to get focused on doing it all. When you are stressed, your children feel it,” said Walters. “Do you really have to put up all of the decorations? Do you have to say yes to every invitation or request?”

Walters offers the following tips for reducing family stress at the holidays:

  • Set expectations ahead of time with spouses, children and extended family or friends. When children know what to expect and have had a discussion about it ahead of time, parents have the opportunity to set the stage for the holiday you hope to have.
  • If budgets are tight, ask children to list a few special gifts and let them know they will receive one. Families can discuss the importance of spending time together to have meaningful experiences, rather than focusing on spending money on material possessions.
  • Ask others for help when needed. Offer to trade off play dates with a friend’s family so you each can have a day to prepare without children underfoot. For family gatherings, split up the tasks involved in getting ready.
  • Take care of your own health. Sleep enough, avoid overeating or drinking, and if you can’t fit in regular exercise, try to get out for a walk when you can.
  • Talk to children ahead of time about changes in routine, even when they are meant to be enjoyable.
  • Make sure to pack snacks and activities if you are traveling, and do your best to keep bedtime and mealtime routines intact. Tired or hungry children are often cranky children.
  • Plan a black out period for complaining about in laws or difficult family members. Everyone can be more sensitive than usual at this time of year.

Walters said for families struggling with a loss, transition, or other big life event, holidays can be especially challenging. “There can be pressure to ‘be happy’ and for those that aren’t feeling well or who are stressed anyway, this can be isolating,” she said.

Children with divorced parents might be sad when remembering times when their parents were still together or struggle with traveling back and forth between households. Each parent may feel pressure to overcompensate at their house, in turn putting pressure on the children. Walters urges families to acknowledge these feelings and allow room for all to share honestly. Spending quiet time can be more rewarding than trying to make each other feel better with gifts or activities.

Families that may feel that things are out of control or are having trouble coping, can call 1-855-KIDLINK or visit www.bradleyhospital.org.