These five strategies can reduce the stress of the hectic holiday season and allow more time for things that matter most to you and your family.
Don’t let the upcoming holiday season take you hostage: Design a family schedule ahead of time, based on members’ input.
Dec. 31st is just two months away. Did you keep any of the New Year’s resolutions you made for 2004?
No matter. You still have time to make and keep this useful one: Resolve to have happier, less stressful year-end holidays this year.
As a starter, consider the following five tips. They’re designed to help you and your children simplify and manage the holiday whirl from Thanksgiving to Jan. 1, so that everyone is still sane, not broke, and happy come Jan. 2.
BEGIN WITH YOURSELF.
To focus anew on enjoying the holidays, says clinical psychologist Dr. Pauline Wallin of Camp Hill, Pa., “be selective in what you’re going to do. Be realistic about your expectations.”
Dr. Wallin says you can get an idea of what is important to you by remembering your own childhood holidays. What did you like? What didn’t you like?
Besides choosing what you want to do, decide what you’re not going to do.
“Get away from the shoulds and oughts and categoricals,” says Dr. Peter A. Wish, a psychologist and consultant in Sarasota, Fla. “Nobody wants to say no during the holidays, but you have to be able to say it to yourself.”
By giving yourself permission to not do some things, says Dr. Wallin, “then you can use your energy to do well” what you do decide to do.
HOLD A FAMILY MEETING.
Once you know your priorities, hold a meeting—it need not be long or formal—to make a family agenda.
“Not only will you work out a schedule,” says Dr. Wallin, “but when you involve your kids in planning something, and you get them to volunteer for doing things, they’re more likely to follow through. They feel like they’re part of the family, like [the holidays aren't] just ‘How many gifts am I going to get?’ So involving the children…gets both their participation and their cooperation.”
Very young children will readily assemble. And kids 7 to 12 years old will attend, says Dr. Wallin, because they see the gathering as “something serious…’Oh, we’re having a meeting. This makes me important.’”
To engage teenagers, make the meeting mandatory, she says, but “ask their opinions about things. Give them options and choices. Don’t make this a power struggle.ŠSolicit their help, saying: ‘I could really use your help here. I’m getting kind of stressed.’” Besides steering clear of confrontation, says Dr. Wallin, “you’re appealing to their good heart.”
Also, prepare for compromise, advises Dr. Wish. Be ready to meet needs “so that at least everybody gets part of what they want even though everybody will not get everything they want.”
USE A REWARD SYSTEM FOR SCHOOL PROJECTS.
If your children have homework during their winter break from school or you have extra work to complete on the job before you can take a holiday vacation, “set goals and timetables,” says Dr. Wish.
Set aside time, maybe an hour or two daily, during which doing homework is “nonnegotiable,” adds Dr. Wallin.
However, both psychologists agree that rewards should await students who meet short- and long-term objectives. “Maybe you’ll have their favorite food, or you’ll allow them to bring a friend” on an outing, suggests Dr. Wish.
If a parent is a procrastinator, “then your kid will be one,” Dr. Wallin observes. A goal for an adult who has trouble meeting deadlines is “to learn how to set a good example for your child,” she says.
SET LIMITS ON SOCIAL EVENTS, GIFT GIVING, AND GREETING CARDS.
You don’t have to be a social butterfly for your calendar to suddenly overflow with school activities, religious programs, community functions, and parties with family and friends at year’s end.
If you can’t—or don’t want to—attend them all, decide which are mandatory and which are the most meaningful to you, the experts advise.
“See which ones you’d like to change that are too stressful, and then put [them] in an alternative plan,” Dr. Wish suggests. If you have small children now but used to go to church at midnight on Dec. 24, for example, “You’re not going to wake up the kids or try to get a baby sitter. Maybe you should go the next day.”
To manage the gift-giving process within your immediate family, Dr. Wallin says, you should first “ask your kids: What did they get [as gifts] last year? See if they can remember.” Chances are, they won’t be able to.
“If you don’t make a big deal out of the gifts, your children won’t either,” she says. “Of course people want to give gifts, but you don’t have to spend a thousand dollars on each kid.”
“You’ve got to make a budget and stick to it” is Dr. Wish’s advice. “When you spend too much money on expensive gifts, you put yourself under a lot of pressure.”
“There’s a point at which you have to draw the line on greeting cards, too,” Dr. Wallin says. “If you’ve got 300 cards to write, that takes time away from more meaningful activities. So I would just send cards to people that you want to keep in touch with, not that you feel obligated to keep in touch with.”
“There’s [one] easy answer,” says Dr. Wish, for ensuring you send the appropriate greeting for the diverse holidays and beliefs observed at year’s end. Buy art or nondenominational cards with no message inside whose sales benefit a worthy cause—as usually denoted on the back of each card.
Recipients appreciate your handwritten salutation, he says, “and people know that [the card] has a charitable meaning to it.”
DO SOMETHING FOR OTHERS.
Worthy causes are year-round concerns of the Tony and Patti Romañach family of Dallas, Tex.
Inveterate volunteers, the couple and their three children offer their services to St. Patrick Catholic Church. An attorney, Tony provides pro bono legal services to the parish Refugee Outreach Program and teaches a religious education class. Patti takes charge of Sunday luncheons cooked for outreach program participants, some of whom the family has “adopted” in one-on-one mentoring relationships.
She is also assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 719, chartered to the church and to which sons Andy, 13, and Tommy, 12, belong. (Daughter, Ana, 9, is a Girl Scout.) The kids help on Sundays and teach their refugee pals how to play American board games.
Even with all this, at Christmastime, the Romañaches have participated in Meals on Wheels and Angel Tree gift programs. Rather than add strain, Patti finds the extra commitments alleviate anxiety. “I think it does take away [stress],” she says, “because it grounds you. You can get so caught up in the commercialism of the holidays: Oh, I’ve got to do this, and I’ve got to do that. You know what: You really don’t have to.”
When they make time to deliver meals or presents, she says the children “get the picture: This is what [the holiday] is about; it’s about other people.”
If you or family members want to give of yourselves but feel that making another holiday commitment will only add stress, “there’s another way to go about it, a random act of kindness every day,” Dr. Wallin points out.
Hold the door at your synagogue or church; let someone go ahead of you in a department store line; get a stranger a shopping cart. Doing small, benevolent acts as you’re out and about not only helps others, Dr. Wallin says, it helps you truly enjoy the season.
Resolving to have happier, less-stressful year-end holidays is one resolution that is worth every family’s attention. Managing and simplifying the added tasks and activities that come in November and December with your family’s personal strategies won’t be easy, but the payoff will most certainly be one of the best gifts you can give yourselves this year.
Kris Imherr, a freelance writer in Dallas, Tex., also wrote the September 2004 Family Talk column, “Helping Your Child Manage Asthma.”