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How to Get a Handle on Holiday Stress

If your end-of-the-year family gatherings - culturally-based or not - create more stress than joy for you and your children, rest assured, you’re not alone. Many people do not eagerly anticipate the thought of packing the car and driving hours to get together with relatives they barely know - especially if they’ve become obligatory rather than wanted events. And if you’ve drawn the short straw and it’s your turn to host the family gathering, you might be adding a whole other layer of stress and expectations - imposed by self or others.

Besides settling the date, coordinating the food, and cleaning your house, a lot of anxiety can revolve around feeling responsible for the way in which our immediate family behaves. This is true whether you’re at home or out of your home. For example, you may worry about whether certain adults will drink too much, whether someone will ask a question about a sensitive topic, whether your children will put their cell phones away or remember their table manners while in the company of relatives who you know are waiting for them to trip up so that they can gossip about your kids and your style of parenting.

And what about the stress of having to bargain with your children about going to the event in the first place? It takes a lot of energy to psyche everyone up, spouse included. There’s also the stress about managing the schedules of two different families: yours and your spouse’s. Do you alternate from year to year? Do you divide and conquer when events conflict?

I don’t mean to paint an entirely bleak picture of family get-togethers. For some, they provide an opportunity for everyone - often across more than two generations - to come together and reconnect at the same time each year. The ritualistic nature of these get-togethers can be comforting and enjoyable, even anticipated with excitement. In these cases, perhaps family members are more compatible or the dynamics more positive. Perhaps changes have been implemented over the years so that gatherings have become more positive and enjoyable. 

Here are some tips:

Instead of taking on the entire responsibility of planning and providing all the food at a formal sit-down dinner, organize a more casual Open House and ask family to drop in to enjoy finger foods over a period of time.

If a sit-down dinner is your tradition, make it a potluck, or consider having it catered. Don’t overextend yourself during this time of year. Incorporate downtime for the little (and big) kids, and try to keep routines as close to normal as possible, especially if overnight travel is anticipated. Develop a thick skin and ignore judging eyes.

Make sure you and your spouse are on the same page when it comes to family gatherings, expectations of the kids, and who will handle any discipline issues and how.

Be protective of your immediate family time and start to develop your own traditions, too.

Through the ages

Preschoolers - Preschoolers by nature are busy. If you’re invited to a home that is not kid-friendly, then you may want to consider the stress that this may cause. Pack a few good toys or crafts or books to help keep them occupied. Consider having people to your home instead so that your children can have their own toys close by, and you don’t have to worry about spills and meltdowns at somebody else’s home when the kids get tired.

School-aged - Although school-aged children may have greater staying power and stamina than younger children, tiredness and hunger are definitely still factors to consider when you notice changes in their behavior. If food is being served at a later time than what is usual for your family, then give them something to eat before you leave home. If you think that your children’s tastes may not be taken into consideration, offer to bring a dish that you know your kids like to eat. Although it’s great to attend gatherings as a complete family, consider that there may be occasions that are best attended as adults only, especially if there aren’t many other kids around to keep yours company.

Teens - Unless there are other similar-aged children at the gathering, it’s normal for teenagers not to want to attend. It’s also normal for them to have competing social interests. Rather than issuing a ‘command performance,’ ask them about their plans and suggest they might like to come for some or all of the gathering. If there are many family obligations over the holidays, go through the list with them and prioritize the ones that are most important they attend and explain why.
If they are old enough to drive, consider taking two cars or allowing them to leave in your car at a designated time. This way, they may feel less coerced and may even surprise you by staying longer than anticipated.

Sara Dimerman is a psychologist, author, and mom to two daughters. For more advice, connect at helpmesara.com or on Twitter @helpmesara. This article was originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November/December 2015.

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