Parents face holidays each year with varying degrees of stress. We know the routines that organize life will diminish over the next 45 days as schools close, bedtimes grow later, and children beg for toys. The strategies parents use to manage stress will become less effective because the world will change around us. Parents will experience stress not only from the holidays but also from the need to change and adapt.
Much of the stress parents feel results from trying to stick to routines for normal days during the topsy-turvy holidays. The comfort of those patterns of daily life draw parents into a spider web of false hope: If we can fit life's demands into the "normal" way of life, then all will be calm. So many parents try to place the round peg of the irregularity of the holidays into the square hole of regularity. Each year parents experience try again to make the holidays work based on non-holiday patterns.
To paraphrase Einstein, "The definition of insane is doing the same thing, over and over, and expecting different outcomes." Based on that idea, parents become insane over the holidays. And, they drive their children crazy too-trying to make their children act as if no holiday uproar exists. Parents do this to try and reduce stress, but in the end increase tension without realizing. Our goal is worthwhile, but the methods are ineffective.
Here are four tips to help moms and dads find joy in the holidays:
Leave the rule book at home: When parents travel to spend the holidays, they sometimes try to use "home" rules for parenting. But, children and parents both experience very different demands than when at home. Grandparents want to stay up and talk to the little ones. Aunts and uncles spoil children with candy and attention. What parents find inappropriate at home becomes "cute" to others. Parents can find joy by leaving the rule book at home. Relax and allow the laughter and smiles from your children become more important than keeping order.
Be flexible with schedules: The holidays push parents to be in two places at once. Schools hold holiday events, churches encourage families to attend special services, and offices hold parties for grown-ups only. These time demands place parents in a position where they must pick and choose. If we are flexible about how we prioritize our time during the holidays, we can release our expectations to please everyone. Instead, joy comes when we go with the flow, and adopt a "do our best" attitude. Parents find happiness, at the end of the day, in the smiling faces of their families.
Pay Close Attention Once per Day: Parents find themselves scattered over the holidays. Sometimes we forget that children need our time more than ever when things become hectic. We can give the gift of attention every day, without paying a penny to a toy store. Parents will find joy in the way a child's eyes light-up during the 15 to 30 minutes set aside to read together or play a simple board game. Those few minutes lay the foundation of connection to children, and show love more than any Lego set or teddy bear.
Give the gift of acceptance: So many parents become overwhelmed in the chaos of the holidays, often asking their children "What do you think you're doing?" Children stutter to answer a question for which no real answer exists. As a psychologist, I often recommend thee strategies to manage the confusion of "holiday cheer."
- Change the way you think about the busyness of holidays- "chaos" becomes "unstructured," or "out of control" becomes "child-like fun." Parents win the stress war when their thoughts use neutral or happier words to describe holidays.
- Accept the reality of holiday cheer-functioning (rather than stressing) during the holidays means accepting the variability of every moment. Part of the definition of holidays includes replacing routines with the joy of the unexpected. Try saying "If I accept that holidays are not predictable, then I can live in the joy of each moment as it unfolds." Parents find holiday joy by staying in the present.
- Acceptance of childhood excitement-parenting during holidays requires embracing childhood enthusiasm. Parents sometimes must reign in their children when excitement becomes uncontrolled behavior. Parents manage these moments best when they accept the inevitability of such moments, so that we see our job to help children regain their self-control. Parents find joy in sending accepting messages that validate children as overly-excited (rather than being "bad"), and empathize with a child's feeling of raw energy. Parents help calm children through validation, so that limit setting becomes a lesson not a punishment.
Holidays combine remembrance of landmark events with good cheer. Whether children are playing with spinning wooden tops or other holiday toys, the joy of the holidays bursts forth from a child playing. Parents can find that same joy by throwing off the mundane routines of everyday life, and instead live inside the smiles and laughter of each moment.
The best gift is found in each present moment.