Season of Stress? How to Refocus the Holidays

In the race to create their kid’s most magical holiday ever, many parents exhaust themselves and miss the point of the season. When Christmas becomes a competition, everyone loses. Read these tips on how to skip some of the unnecessary stuff, care for yourself, and stick with what really matters: quality family time.

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By Jae Curtis

Let's face it: Parents are getting more and more competitive. But in the race to create your kid’s most magical holiday ever, you might be exhausting yourself and missing the point. When you turn Christmas into a competition, everyone loses.

"When it comes to holidays, the biggest mistake parents make is not caring for themselves first," says Josh Klapow, clinical psychologist and associate professor of public health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Sounds cliché, but when there are no boundaries, no rules for self-preservation, we see parents becoming martyrs."

Learn how to exchange holiday stress for the gift of quality family time.

Elf on the Shelf

Hey, it's a cute concept. Inspired by the 2005 book Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition, parents hide an elf doll in a different spot of their home every night, and the elusive creature keeps an eye on the kids and reports back to Santa. Entire websites are devoted to coming up with hilarious scenarios that leave you creeping around at 11 p.m., frosting Cheerios to look like elf donuts.

If Elf on the Shelf is way too much of a commitment, ditch the daily scenarios and invent a simplified version. Maybe he only changes places weekly or comes around for unscheduled visits. Or, simply skip this new “tradition” altogether.

Activity Advents

Many families are one-upping the classic treat-filled Advent calendar with a schedule of family fun—a festive activity for every day. Whether it's sipping hot chocolate, baking cookies, or seeing Christmas lights around town, these activities are great … in theory. It's not until your 5-year-old is whining from the backseat of the car or you run out of cloves for gingerbread that you wonder why you decided to try in the first place.

Ditch the schedule for a looser itinerary. Christmas is about spending time with your family, but holding tight to a rigid schedule can feel more like crunch time than quality time. Instead, pick a few activities that your family loves and focus on making them really count.

Card Craze

You've seen 'em: the pictures of families blissfully traipsing through the snow or a baby caught in a tangle of lights. They show up to your door in the form of Christmas cards and make you feel bad that the last picture where your entire family is looking at the camera was taken two years ago. 

Seeing perfect pictures from your friends and family is enough to make you feel green with envy, but you don't need the perfect shot for a great card. A funny snapshot or cute picture of your kids slipped into a traditional card is more personal—and you don't have to pay for a pricey photog.

Lighting Lunacy

Every year, a friend or neighbor decorates the house with a thousand Christmas lights and every other holiday decoration ever created. You, on the other hand, are so pooped from trying to find your dusty box of tangled lights that there’s no energy left for replacing the burned-out bulbs and climbing a ladder to string them up.

Holiday decorations are for kids, so step back and let your kid put them up. She might end up with one odd-looking display of holiday cheer, but hey, it’s her odd-looking display of holiday cheer, and she’ll love it.

Christmas Crafting

Glitter, glue, and paint, oh my! If you're not happily cutting out felt ornaments and creating Christmas trees from your child's handprints, you're missing out, right? It can feel that way when you scroll through your Pinterest board and see the crafts that more creative minds have dreamed up.

There's a good chance your child is getting her crafting fill at school. If you're itching to get out the tape and scissors, keep it simple. Or if the craft mess totally stresses you out, skip the pain and glitter and make a gratitude collage or color with crayons instead.

Busy Baker

Are you the one who always supplies the tastiest, most festive sweet treats of the season? That’s a lot of work for someone who’s also shopping, wrapping, and visiting, not to mention preparing the occasional healthy meal to your kid to balance out all the sweets.

This might be the year to put baking on the back burner. There’s a good chance your family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers are getting enough sugar and flour this time of year. If you absolutely must make your famous Christmas cookies, just whip up a single batch and spread it out to few special recipients.

You probably want Christmas to be perfect for your child. While it's fine to strive for happy memories, being constantly stressed and annoyed when things don’t run smoothly is no way to spend this wonderful time of year. As Klapow notes, "In the end, being good for yourself and your kids at holiday time is akin to putting the oxygen mask on yourself first then the child sitting next to you." Skip some of the unnecessary stuff, care for yourself, and stick with what really matters, and you'll enjoy happier holidays.

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