Surviving Holiday Stress

Kathy Lynn Gray

Keep it simple.

That's the mantra that keeps Val Mikles sane as the holiday season swirls in November and December. “I love the Christmas season, but I do feel like there's a craziness to it that is stressful,” said the Clintonville mother of two. “I feel like it's hard not to get caught up in the craziness.”

That sentiment is common among parents, said child psychologist Tim Luis, who practices in Powell and has counseled many clients on managing seasonal stress. “The holidays can be an emotional marathon for some people,” he said, as they deal with family visits, special meals, presents, travel, parties, school events and changes in routines.

Managing that marathon can unsettle even the calmest of parents, especially if they set their expectations too high. “Not everything is going to be perfect, and we need to focus on the experiences rather than the material stuff,” Luis said. “No one's going to remember how you wrapped a present, but they might remember what you did together.”

Susan Weltner-Brunton, a child psychologist for 29 years, said one way to cope with the chaos of the season is to establish your own traditions. “In the long run, what will help children have positive memories of holidays will be the traditions that the family practices,” she said. That might include special foods on certain days, lighting candles, decorating together or going to a concert each year.

“Rituals are important to bring meaning to the holidays and create a sense of family identity, whether they are religious or ethnic or secular,” Weltner-Brunton said. “They can be simple and inexpensive, but they need to have meaning.”

One tradition she suggests parents start is some way for children to help others. “Make the holidays about giving back, rather than just receiving,” Weltner-Brunton said. “Prepare them with those expectations ahead of time and decide that you're going to volunteer or provide toys for a needy family.”

Planning ahead can cut down on stress, said Jenny Lobb, a family and consumer sciences educator for the Franklin County office of OSU Extension.

Lobb suggests making and freezing everyday dinners in early November so you can easily prepare meals when the holiday rush begins; keeping a well-stocked pantry to avoid frequent trips to the store; and making and freezing cookie dough (or even completed cookies) long before the holidays.

If you're hosting a big dinner, ask other family members to bring side dishes. Don't start everything from scratch; use canned or frozen vegetables or fruits to speed up preparations. Forego complex recipes to save time, Lobb suggested. “You have to pick and choose and be realistic about what you can invest in a big meal, and that's going to look different for every family,” she said. “As busy as we are, having one person responsible for a meal that's supposed to be elaborate isn't going to meet everyone's expectations.”

As for the table, “You don't need to break out the china and get out your special dishes,” Lobb said. Fancy desserts can come from a local business, farmer's market or specialty shop and still be special, she said. “Don't feel guilty about buying a grab-and-go item,” she said. “Recognize you can't be everything to everyone.”

Weltner-Brunton echoed that sentiment. “Give up perfection,” she advised. “A lot of moms, especially, are striving for that perfect holiday season and it's never going to happen. Give yourself permission to do something different or to skip something you always do at the holidays if you feel like it's too much for you. If traveling really stresses you out and the holidays really stress you out, maybe you'd want to schedule travel at another time, for example.”

Mikles does that with her family, husband Len; son Ethan, 8; and daughter Laurel, 5. Since they don't have relatives in town, they host Thanksgiving at their house and invite another family. Usually, Mikles' mother-in-law from Cleveland joins them. “That's our tradition,” she said. “We make a bunch of food and the other family brings some food, so it's very laid-back.”

At Christmas, they travel to visit family in the Cleveland area for a day, pick up Mikles' mother-in-law and return home in time for Christmas Eve. Mikles' family is in Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and “that's too far to go,” she said.

“On Christmas we get up when we want to, have a Christmas breakfast and open presents,” she said. They forego a big afternoon meal. “We just keep it super simple,” she said.

That simplicity extends to holiday décor as well, Mikles said. They buy a live tree, put lights outside and a few decorations inside. “I don't transform my house into a Christmas wonderland,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like somewhat of a Scrooge because of that, but I'm not that kind of a person.”

Mikles also carefully weighs holiday activities. “There are tons and tons of things to do and you feel like you have to do everything, but you can't do everything,” she said. Instead, they have a few family traditions: painting wooden ornaments, decorating a gingerbread house kit and “candy-cane bombing” one or two houses on the street where single neighbors live—secretly hanging candy canes all over their trees and bushes.

“It's one of the funnest things we do and it's super easy,” Mikles said. “And we're a Christian family, so we try to keep Christ in Christmas and reinforce that Christmas is about giving. We don't want to miss the purpose of the season.”

Misty Harmon, a family and science educator with OSU Extension in Perry County, said parents can miss a lot of important moments with their children if they allow the hustle and bustle of the holidays to overwhelm them.

“Do what's best for your family,” she said. “Your kids don't want you stressed out. Moments with your kids aren't going to last forever and you should try to enjoy them, even in trying times. Too many times we feel obligated to do things and they're not really meaningful to the time we want to have with our family.”

Harmon suggests remembering what brought you joy during the holidays as a child and using that as a guide. “Don't feel bad about saying ‘no,' ” she said. “That's really a gift to yourself.”

For more tips on dealing with holiday stress, the American Psychological Association offers advice