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10 Ways to Cope with Holiday Stress

The holidays are far from idyllic and may be even harder due to the pandemic.

Key points

  • The holidays often defy our ideal expectations for perfection and are laced with multiple stressors.
  • This year, the pandemic has made matters more stressful for many due to loss of loved ones, uncertainty, and economic downturn.
  • The holidays are often even harder for those who suffer from psychiatric disorders and traumatic family histories.
© iStockphoto | HannamariaH
Source: © iStockphoto | HannamariaH

Co-author: Steve Schlozman

For many, the holidays are anticipated as idyllic—a long-awaited time to connect with family and friends, share memories, play games, watch familiar movies (we all have our favorites—Home Alone, Harry Potter, Elf, It’s A Wonderful Life—you know yours), watch sports, cook together. And eat, eat, eat, and worry about losing all that unnecessary and unhealthy weight in the New Year.

But let’s paint a picture about this year—one we all sadly know well. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a substantial mental health toll on all of us. Kids and parents in isolation; most of us missing the joy of the holidays last year at the peak of the pandemic; tragic loss of loved ones. The outcome has had a huge impact on our kids. Depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness, suicidal thinking, and behavior has skyrocketed. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and teen mental health.

While many are planning to make this holiday season closer to the traditional ones, there are still anxieties around the health and safety of our loved ones. And this can lead to family disagreements or worse. Home for the holidays this year takes on a new, uncomfortable, and stressful meaning. It is a novel and unexpected situation without any clear solutions.

Even without the pandemic, the holidays are usually far from perfect. Study after study shows us that the holidays are stressful—stressful for both parents and kids. (Like we needed a study to tell us that.) People are cranky, irritable, rushed, and unruly. All of us, kids and adults alike, await the holidays with great anticipation and expectations—family, fun, presents, togetherness. And these experiences are more than reinforced by the multitude of ads we all see on TV. Yet, for most of us, there are immeasurable stresses.

People with psychiatric disorders often have an even harder time. Depression and substance use challenges worsen, and suicide attempts appear to increase. And this is without the escalation in mental health challenges we’ve seen due to the pandemic. Don’t misunderstand—the holidays are also wonderful, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we ignored the misery that the holidays can potentially engender.

So, how do we navigate these frenzied days? How do we stay on even keel?

It turns out that there are some things we can do to manage the tough times, and though many of these things seem obvious, it’s their very obviousness that often causes us to forget.

Here are 10 important points to remember:

  1. Pace yourself (if possible). Adults and children rarely do well when they’re rushed. Kids detect the panicked demeanor of their parents, and parents then get irritable when their anxious kids act out. So, don’t do it all at once. If you can, spread out the errands and ask your family members to help with the chores and preparations.
  2. Pick your battles. The already present frenzy means that most attempts at reprimand will be met with greater than normal emotional responses. If you tell your teenager to take her feet off the dashboard, you might get more than the average earful, and it might not be worth that level of discord. Save your angry moments for the times when things are really going south.
  3. Plan fun things. Shopping in crazed malls with a zillion people all fighting for the latest coveted toy or the same cup of coffee is rarely fun. Remember that you can also shop online—for both convenience and safety—and enlist other family members to help. This is the time for incentives (read: gentle bribes). Your school-aged kid will be a lot more malleable if they can engage in a fun flick or digital game. Some may be virtual this year, but most kids are now used to virtual activities. And try to play with each other at home. Playing board games or cards, watching old home videos or slide shows, doing a crafts project, cooking a cool dessert, or singing or doing karaoke together (even if out of tune) are activities never forgotten. Memories can last forever, whereas toys and other presents might lose their value over time.
  4. Find virtual ways to connect. Some family members will not be able to gather in person this year—whether it’s due to travel costs, family schedules, or safety concerns. Set up virtual ceremonies, like singing together, sharing toasts, reading bedtime stories. You can even do family projects, like making a holiday Spotify playlist, or setting up a group text to share a photo every day. We yearn to be together. Be creative about finding digital ways to connect.
  5. If times are tough, talk about it. The economy has gotten better for some, but the holidays still remind working-class families that luxuries they could afford five or ten years ago are sometimes no longer possible. Don’t let that issue go unrecognized. Kids will notice what’s missing, and in doing so may imagine something much worse than the truth. In a way that makes sense for your child’s age, tell them that there is less money this year, but that the same amount of fun, goodwill, and love remains. Ask them, despite constraints this year, how we can still maintain family closeness and holiday joy. And if times are tough because of political discourse and disagreements, try to have conversations to clear the air; put disagreements on the table, and try to come up with reasonable solutions. It may initially add to the stress, but holding in resentments will surface in other ways that may make matters worse.
  6. Try alternate ways of giving. While many see the holidays as a time to be excessive (eating, spending), maybe there are alternatives. If your family is experiencing economic hardship, try picking names out of a hat and having each family member give that person one gift of a certain amount. This way there are fewer gifts, but perhaps greater consideration for each present given. This also keeps the meaning of giving front and center. The holidays may be better spent sharing time together rather than spending too much and not taking the time to simply be with one another. Giving time is much more precious than giving gifts. Playing together is never forgotten—in person or online—whereas that electronic gizmo often is forgotten, eventually (and often breaks).
  7. Be aware of worsening psychological suffering. As we noted, psychiatric symptoms often worsen during the holidays. This makes sense—just as asthma worsens with dust, psychiatric symptoms worsen with stress. There is, however, an even more insidious stressor with the holidays, and as noted are compounded by the increase due to the pandemic. People hear nothing but messages that they are supposed to be happy. That message can make individuals with psychiatric conditions suffer even more if they are already not doing well. Help your loved ones to get the extra care they need, and don’t hesitate to call your doctor or a helpline. Those calls can be life-changing and even life-saving.
  8. Don’t forget those who are not there. Someone is always missing during the holidays. It may seem painful to bring up a lost one, or a family member who cannot make it home, but telling stories, watching old videos, and looking at photos is always helpful in bringing the family together. Kids love to hear stories about family members—where they came from, what they did, what they’re doing now. Don’t forget that physical absence is not the same as emotional absence.
  9. Don’t let the ghosts of holidays past haunt you. Many people find the holidays to be incredibly stressful when they painfully recall holidays in the past. Some families have individuals who experienced the holidays under traumatic situations involving domestic violence, alcoholism, or substance use disorder. In these circumstances, the holidays can come to carry an important and difficult reminder: the loss of an “ideal” family, or, at least, one that is peaceful and happy. Kids pick up on these memories like sponges. While painful memories cannot be erased, dwelling on past grievances without resolution is not likely to be productive. It’s far better to acknowledge the pain (after all, the kids and others already know that these are not easy times) than to try and make life in the moment better for all.
  10. Keep the focus on gratitude. Every year has its ups and downs. The holidays can be an important venue for reflecting on seminal moments in family and personal life and most importantly in relationships. It’s fitting that we traditionally sing Auld Lang Syne New Year’s Eve. This tune never fails to evoke nostalgia. Keeping the focus on gratitude—how grateful we are to be together regardless of the adversities or losses we have suffered—is resilience-building.
  11. Don’t aim for perfection. A sure formula for depression, demoralization, and upset is setting standards too high for the holidays. No dinner is perfect; something breaks; someone gets into an old family fight. This is the normal course of things, and it’s beneficial to keep in mind that something will likely not go according to plan rather than letting it catch you off guard. Setting expectations too high for the holidays is certain to upset you and your kids—they already know that you’re stressed.

The holidays are not necessarily difficult, but they can be enormously trying, especially this year. Don’t let the hustle and bustle ruin your time with family and friends. Slow it down. After all, these days really only happen once a year.

Also published in a longer form on the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at The Massachusetts General Hospital.

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