December 8, 2022

How to manage holiday stress: Tips for the whole family

Experience the best of the season by following these tips from an adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist.

A few simple practices can help you and your loved ones enjoy the holidays with less stress.

For many people, the holiday season is a time to gather with family and friends, share meals, and enjoy the season’s festivities. This can make it difficult to remember that it isn’t a happy time for some people, especially this year on the heels of a nearly 3-year pandemic. The holidays can feel overwhelming for you and your kids.

Lateefah Watford, MD, an adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist in Georgia, shares tips on how to manage stress and proactively take care of yourself and your family.

What causes stress during the holidays?

Not all stress that surfaces is due to bad situations. Good situations, like the anticipation of being surrounded by loved ones, can also cause stress.

Stress can come from a variety of sources, including holiday shopping, increased spending, and the angst sometimes felt around gift-giving. Celebrating traditions, gathering with those you love, and being jolly can also cause stress.

During the holiday season, we are often asked to participate in group activities, and we don’t want to fail our family and friends. I am the oldest daughter, and in my family that means I usually host the larger family gatherings, especially Thanksgiving. This is something I look forward to every year!

However, for someone who may not want to host or attend a big event, it can be hard to say no. This might be more of a concern for some this year as we balance the risk of flu, RSV, and COVID-19 with the desire to spend time with family and friends.

Although for many the holidays represent times built around family, friends, gatherings, and celebration, it’s important to be mindful that this time of year can be bittersweet for people who have experienced trauma or loss, or who are unable to gather with loved ones.

How to relieve stress and take care of yourself

The best way to start the holiday season is to be self-aware. The holidays are often portrayed as being joyful and extravagant, and we sometimes throw ourselves into holiday activities too quickly only to become overwhelmed. Be kind to yourself and only do what you can realistically do.

Planning is very helpful — budget money and proactively schedule time for self-care activities, whether that’s walking, reading, or catching an episode of your favorite TV show.

Understanding how you can protect yourself and your loved ones when you travel and get together can also help.

If you’re missing a loved one, know that it’s normal to feel sad. Celebrate in ways that are meaningful to you, even if it’s not the usual family tradition.

Help kids manage stress

Overall, lead by example and show kids the behaviors that you want them to pick up on, such as planning, while also being OK with a change in plans. It’s important to include children in decision-making about how the family will celebrate. The holidays offer the perfect opportunity to create new family traditions, such as gathering using video calls to allow loved ones to participate from near and far. And I often encourage parents to keep their antennas up during the hectic holiday season for anything that may have happened in the community recently, such as shootings or suicides, that may be weighing on your kids.

Check in with your kids. Let them know there will be a lot of people around and activities during the holidays, so they’re not blindsided. Allow kids to have downtime and step in when you sense they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Stick to a schedule. When on school break, kids have more free time. Keeping up with familiar routines can reduce stress. Maintain consistent wake times and bedtimes, plus nap times for younger kids. To make schedules more fun, have your kids pick some activities they enjoy and add them to the schedule.

Provide balanced meals. Traditional holiday foods are special treats for kids. But to make sure kids have the energy they need during busy times, and to help maintain a consistent and healthy routine, it’s best to limit treats and continue to provide nutritional meals.

Discuss alcohol and drug use. I recommend having honest talks with your children about substance abuse and addiction. During holiday celebrations there is a potential for increased access to alcoholic beverages. In addition, there may be family members and friends visiting who may bring prescription medications. Talk to your kids about the risks of consuming alcohol and medications not prescribed to them.

Be sensitive to experiences of loss. Help kids express their feelings by talking to them about your own feelings, and showing them that feelings are important and talking about them is okay. Help your children name their feelings and give them the appropriate language to express how they feel.

Acknowledging feelings and providing a safe space to discuss how they are feeling is helpful for everyone. It can help relieve stress and tension and help everyone enjoy the time you spend together.

For more information about how to help children with their mental health, check out Kaiser Permanente’s Find Your Words website (also available in Spanish).