The Art and Science of Managing Holiday Stress
If you’re a parent or a caregiver, you’re about to get much busier than usual. Between holiday shopping, cooking and visits with friends and family, you’ll soon have a lot more on your plate than pumpkin pie. What’s more, your children will be on winter break before you can say “Happy Holidays”!
In what follows, Dr. Shannon Bennett, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine and Director of the NewYork Presbyterian Hospital’s Center for Youth Mental Health, offers expert advice that will help you take care of yourself as you find ways to take care of the people you love—especially your children.
What can we do to take care of ourselves during the holiday season?
Start with being mindful about your schedule, Dr. Bennett suggests. Instead of trying to cram as many visits and activities as possible into each day, leave room for downtime and self-care, both for yourself and your kids. “Focus on enjoying each other, enjoying the people you choose to spend time with and making conscious choices about who that will be.”
Instead of pressuring yourself to get more and more done, try to remain in the moment as much as possible, she says—and don’t forget to practice gratitude, a proven stress reducer and mood booster.
What is the number-one stressor affecting our kids over the holidays?
Dr. Bennett doesn’t hesitate to award that booby prize to social media. Seeing what others are doing and what toys or gadgets they’re getting can ruin the joy in any situation, she says. “We can feel great about our plans and the gifts we’ve received until we start comparing what we have to what others are doing, getting or experiencing.”
One possible antidote is to limit screen time. And another is to practice gratitude, focusing on acceptance of what we have instead of anxiety around what we don’t have.
What are the best ways to help our kids keep stress to a minimum?
Encourage them to stick with the same healthy routines they follow during the rest of the year. For example, even though everyone enjoys indulging in rich holiday foods—especially sweets—plan some meals that include fresh fruit and vegetables.
As well, try to maintain consistent bedtimes and wake-times. Sometimes, teens and older kids can get into a complete sleep-wake reversal, staying up really late into the night and then sleeping through much of the day. Do your best to help them avoid “vampire” syndrome!
“Another great way to mitigate stress and anxiety is to strive for a balance of pleasant, fun activities, productive activities, physical activities, service—things we do for other people—and social activities—things we do with other people,” she says. Your kids can make a list, or they can choose from a list that you’ve made for them. Have them choose activities from each category and make plans accordingly.
How can we encourage our kids to practice mindfulness, gratitude and self-care while cultivating these practices ourselves?
“We can all practice gratitude at meals,” Dr. Bennett says. “Try going around the table and take turns saying one thing you were grateful for today.”
Volunteering to serve others in our communities, or even helping out at home, makes us feel good about ourselves, she adds. These are great ways to counter that great joy stealer—comparing ourselves to others on social media or in real life. Gratitude and service are also wonderful for family connection.
How can we manage potentially stressful conversations with friends or family members whose views may differ sharply from our own?
First, give priority to the health and safety of your immediate family, both physically and psychologically. Sometimes, when we’re spending time with extended family, we encounter points of view that are different from our own, says Dr. Bennett. “Tell your children, ‘I’m proud of you for the beliefs you have.’
“If a member of our family isn’t engaging with you respectfully, you can say something like this: I don’t like the way you’re talking to me right now, so I’m going to take a break from this conversation.’ You’ll be teaching them a valuable life skill, one they’ll be able to use when dealing with people who don’t see the world in the same way that you do. It’s a skill that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.”
- Take care of yourself so that you can take care of your kids.
- Schedule time for additional cooking, shopping and gift-wrapping.
- And make sure to build in downtime and self-care.
- Find an optimal balance between social time, family time, physical activity and service.
- Practice gratitude and mindfulness.
- Enjoy spending time with family and friends over the holidays!