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You’re racing around town, trying to purchase a present for everyone on your list. The past week has been filled with evenings of chauffeuring your family to holiday parties and visits with Santa, leaving everyone exhausted.
The most wonderful time of the year can also be the most stressful.
One in five parents admitted their stress likely negatively impacts their children’s enjoyment of the holidays, according to a C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at University of Michigan Health.
Parents can set unrealistic expectations of how the holiday season should be, said poll author Sarah Clark, a research scientist in the department of pediatrics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is also co-director of the C.S. Mott poll.
Adults often try and fit in many holiday traditions like wearing matching outfits for the Christmas card or attending annual parties, she said, at times so many that it can cause palpable tension and stress in a household.
“Something parents should keep in mind is that adhering to traditions is not always what is most important to the kids and definitely adds to that holiday stress,” Clark said.
Clark recommended parents sit down with their children to find out what their expectations are rather than assuming anything.
Parents should ask open-ended questions such as “What did you like best?” or “What do you remember from other holiday seasons?” she said. This will help parents prioritize what is important to the family, which in turn decreases the long to-do lists many households have this time of year, Clark explained.
Another strategy to tackle those long lists is to set aside more time than you think you need to do them and start completing tasks sooner, said CNN contributor John Duffy, clinical psychologist in Chicago and author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety.”
“Parents allow themselves to get into the holiday spirit earlier in the season,” Duffy said. “By taking their time, they also regulate their stress levels far better than they would otherwise.”
Parents also feel the pressure
One in four parents said they set high expectations for themselves during the holidays, which detracts from their enjoyment of the season too.
Of the 2,020 parents polled in October, one in six said they have high stress levels during the holidays, with almost twice as many mothers reporting they feel stress than fathers.
Traditional gender roles likely come into play here, with mothers taking on many of the chores and shopping tasks of the season, Clark said.
“Other members of the family might say, ‘Who cares if we do holiday cards this year?’ But if it’s important to the mother, that will get put on her plate and be more stressful to her,” she said.
Mothers are more likely to find stress relief when other family members pitch in to help compared to fathers, the poll found. However, it can be difficult for some mothers to accept help because they have a specific vision of how the holidays should go, Clark said.
The key is to accept the help for what it is and let go of some of the expectations, she said.
Fathers, on the other hand, are more likely to throw themselves into work to handle the stress, according to the poll.
“This choice certainly protects men from the many stressors that the holidays can bring, but far too often, they often miss some of the joy of those tasks,” Duffy said.
Practicing good mental hygiene
The holidays are a great opportunity that is often overlooked for how to set an example of practicing positive mental health, Clark said.
When parents are feeling stressed, they should articulate it to their children and talk about the action they are going to take to destress, she said.
“It could be, ‘We are not going to go to the neighborhood holiday event this year because everybody feels tired. We’re just going to get in our pajamas early and stay home and eat popcorn and watch a movie,’” Clark said.
Duffy recommended parents take frequent breaks to watch an episode of their favorite television show, go for a walk or step aside and take a moment to breathe. To avoid holiday burnout, he also suggested parents take a day or two off work to rest and rejuvenate if possible.
Parents should also be aware of how certain holiday activities can trigger their stress because it is likely to affect the entire family unit, Duffy said.
His family often gets invited to many holiday events, but he said he would prefer to go to one or two. To feel energized for the evening holiday activities, he said he takes extra time for himself on those days so he can be fully present.
Keeping a routine
With school out of session for the break, the poll found many parents relax household rules. Around 20% of parents said they relaxed screen time rules, and 19% said they were less strict on bedtimes.
“There’s a famous Christmas song that says, ‘Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again,’ so I think parents need to be realistic that school is the natural scheduler for a lot of families,” Clark said.
In lieu of a school schedule, Clark recommended parents create a schedule that prioritizes children getting enough sleep and good nutrition.
With regular sleep, children are less likely to be cranky and have an emotional outburst, which may negatively affect the entire family, Duffy said.