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Reducing Family Stress During the Holidays

Updated on November 24, 2017
Carola Finch profile image

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental illness and cognitive conditions..


Like poor Clark Griswold in the movie “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation,” many of us dream of the perfect Christmas. We long for the beauty of the perfect tree with twinkling lights and shiny orbs. We want to blow the dust off of our favorite garlands and Christmas ornaments.

We imagine an incredible turkey dinner with family all around that is aglow with love and laughter. Everyone is bubbling with joy and appreciation for the perfectly cooked food.

Instead, like poor Clark, our family members may be dysfunctional, eccentric, obnoxious or downright annoying. Our attempts at creating the perfect Christmas make us so stressed that we make silly mistakes and have ridiculous mishaps. We wear ourselves out so much that we can’t even enjoy the holidays when they arrive.

We may not be dealing with wild and crazy squirrels this Christmas, but we all have our own challenges. The last few Christmases have been tough for me because I suffered the effects of cancer treatment, bronchitis, and was in recovery from surgeries. So how can we reduce our stress and enjoy the holiday season?

There are a number of ways we can reduce stress on ourselves and our families this holiday season.

Keep it simple

Sounds easy, but keeping things simple actually takes planning and thought ahead of time. If we are rushing into things, we are more likely to make mistakes or have crazy mishaps. Christmas is no fun if you are too tired and stressed to enjoy it.

Plan your travel time

Travel in itself is exhausting and stressful. If you have to travel by car during the holidays, make sure your vehicle is in good shape, especially if you are driving in blustery, snowy conditions. Travel well ahead of time in case bad weather or car problems causes delays.


Lower your expectations – and those of the children

There is only so much time, energy, and finances we can put into the holidays. We may have a wonderful, happy time. Or things can go terribly wrong – a relative is in a car accident or is ill and can’t come for the holidays, or families fight.

Dealing with children’s expectations

  • Ask children to figure out and tell us what items are most important to them
  • Let children know early on that the number of gifts will be limited
  • Teach children that holidays are for giving as well as receiving, and work out a charitable activity they can do with mom and dad’s help
  • Remind children about the proper etiquette when they receive gifts from others, particularly when the gift was not something they hoped to receive

Parents of young children really struggle with meeting their children’s expectations. They want their children to see them and generous and fulfilling their wishes, even when they should say they can’t afford something or they don’t feel that the toy their children want are good for them. Parents feel stressed and pressured to get everything their kids want, and dread disappointing them.

TV and Internet commercials scream that we need to buy, buy, buy to satisfy our children. Our kids are sure to have friends with rich parents who can fulfill a wish list that Santa would find daunting.

Stress reduction for parents

  • Get organized early with the kids in mind, such as including kid-friendly food favorites on holiday menus
  • Ensure kids have lots of games and activities to keep kids busy at home or while traveling
  • Plan fun or inspiring family traditions such as attending religious services, reading aloud, or visiting relatives and celebrate them consistently. Traditions give children a sense of structure and comfort in the chaos of the holidays
  • Ask for help to get things done
  • Schedule time to spend with your nuclear family to create feelings of calm and normalcy during the holidays
  • Teach children to have empathy for others and encourage them to give to a clothing or toy drive or donate to a charity
  • Plan something for the family to do after the holidays – the holidays will go more smoothly with something to look forward to after the bustle calms down

Working parents are often at risk for overcompensating because they feel guilty about not spending as much time with their children as they would like.

“It’s an often unconscious wish that our material generosity will make up for our time away (or time in front of our computers), and so we want to deliver at holiday time some real abundance,” says Dr. Aaron Cooper, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University and author of “I Just Want My Kids To Be Happy.”

It is important to manage kid’s expectations of the holidays from an early age. Children need to be taught to be wise consumers because of the constant barrage of media advertising feeds their hunger for possessions.


Instead of pursuing a “perfect” Christmas, aim for a “good enough” holiday. Aiming for perfection will just frustrate you and stress you out. We must accept that most holidays with family are not going to be a Hallmark card. We can love people but still butt heads with them and have trouble getting along.

When we push ourselves to be perfect, we are going to be really stressed and plagued with guilt. Instead, we have to accept that dysfunctional families and situations are what they are. If we are trying our best (or even if we are not) we should let go of our guilt that things are not better.

Know your Limits

Figure out how much family togetherness you can tolerate. It is better to have a happy afternoon with family than a few days of fighting and feeling overwhelmed. If you are staying with relatives, figure out much time you can tolerate with them, or pick a relative who is easy going. Sometimes, a hotel may be a better option.

Be sure not to overindulge in food and drink and get enough sleep. Plan some “me” time for a drive, a hot bath, or a good read. Your room should be a sanctuary where you can escape from the chaos.

Dealing with Difficult People

T'is the time of year not only to be jolly, but to deal with our in-laws and obnoxious relatives. Our mother-in-laws may take over the kitchen, while father-in-law drinks too much alcohol and can barely make it to the dining room table. Our aunts will remind us that we gained a few pounds. Argh! It is easy for these people to ruin our holidays by upsetting us and making us stressed and angry, but there are a few things we can do to keep the peace.

Ways to Decrease Stress Caused by Family Members

Expect the minimum: We should not expect your in-laws or relatives to express praise, approval and warmth. We can do our best to be gracious hosts who treat them as honored guests, but we should not care if they do not respond in a positive way.

Let them help if they want to. People like feel needed.

Keep conversations light: Ask relatives questions about their lives such as their childhood, work, and hobbies. People love to talk about themselves.

Do not allow negativity and criticism: deflect criticism with a neutral comment or change the subject. Pick another time after the holidays to settle issues, if needed.

Set time limits: When visiting relatives, tell them a set time that we need to leave to go shopping or take the kids skating

Take a walk: Take a breather after facing the dragons.

Manage our Thinking

Being upset all the time will distort our thinking. For example, if a clerk in a store is rude, we might take it personally. Instead, we should look at things from another perspective. Perhaps the clerk was just having a bad day.

Accept that bad or unexpected things will happen, such as discovering a flat tire just before leaving for a Christmas destination. Find something positive to focus on. Be thankful it did not happen on the road.

Do not Waste Time on Regret

If bad things happen during the holidays, do not focus on what you failed to do or the mistakes you made. Let them go. Sometimes, a sense of humor needs to kick in to restore our equilibrium.

© 2013 Carola Finch


Submit a Comment
  • Carola Finch profile imageAUTHOR

    Carola Finch 

    6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    You are right, CrisSp. I think people put too much pressure on themselves to have perfect holidays and ended up stressed and disappointed.

  • CrisSp profile image


    6 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

    Simplify, simplify and simplify...I cannot stress that enough and thank you for emphasizing it again here. I don't know why people complicate and stress things out. But hey, it's Christmas means family and friends, eh?

    Well, I guess good planning is the key and this is a good hub!

    Thanks. I'm certainly passing it along!

  • Carola Finch profile imageAUTHOR

    Carola Finch 

    6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Happy holidays to everyone - may it be as stress-free as possible!

  • Carola Finch profile imageAUTHOR

    Carola Finch 

    6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for your comments. It seems that the holidays are a difficult time for everyone.

  • Heather63 profile image

    Heather Adams 

    6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

    Hi Carola - I love the main points you make: simplify, lower expectations, look at the positives. I have streamlined my own holiday ambitions in the last few years, and it wasn't easy! But you're right - it's about sharing time together with family and friends, and enjoying what we have. Have a wonderful holiday season!

  • iguidenetwork profile image


    6 years ago from Austin, TX

    Thank you for these wonderful ideas. It may be really hard but I will try my best to explain to the kids on why they should not expect too much. I hope they will understand that

  • Carola Finch profile imageAUTHOR

    Carola Finch 

    6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thank you for your comments.

  • denise.w.anderson profile image

    Denise W Anderson 

    6 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

    It has been my experience that when I don't make my own plans for the holidays, I have to put up with whatever I am invited to participate in at other's homes. Now, I do my best to plan what I want to have happen, then work around other people's plans. It makes for a much happier holiday season for me and for my family!

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Weithers 

    6 years ago from The Caribbean

    It takes a very mature mindset to do things like lower expectations and expect the minimum; but it can also payoff in relieving the pressure. Thank you for sharing these practical ideas.


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