We are reminded, every year at this time, how difficult holidays can be for people who are lonely or alone. But let’s be honest: even for families rich in children, holidays can be stressful—both for parents and kids.
Why are holidays so fraught? Because expectations are heightened, and holidays can feel like a test of how happy and successful your family is. And if you have children with psychiatric or learning disorders, even favorite traditions can turn into a test of stamina and patience.
Here are some tips to help minimize stress on kids—which will make them more fun, and fulfilling, for you, too.
1. Make festivities fun for kids.
Some holiday traditions depend on kids being on their best behavior: lengthy services, parties with lots of strangers, elaborate meals that may not appeal to picky eaters. Try to keep those to a minimum and customize festivities for your kids’ frustration level. Don’t schedule more than one demanding event in a day. Make sure to include physical activity and plenty of downtime.
2. Be open to change.
Talk with your kids about your traditions—which ones they love and which you might evolve to make them more fun or memorable for everyone. This is especially important when family dynamics have changed because of divorce, a new marriage or sibling, or a death in the family.
3. Be realistic.
Factoring in kids’ limitations when you make plans will reduce stress on everyone. Kids who are anxious about meeting new people—or even encountering the extended family—will need support and realistic expectations. Kids who have trouble with organization will need help to succeed at gift-giving. Children who tend to be impulsive need structure to minimize disruptive behavior. Not overestimating your kids’ patience and ability to focus will help you enjoy yourself more, too.
4. Prep kids for changes in routine.
Holidays represent a change in a family’s normal schedule, and for some kids that’s unsettling. Preparing them for changes in their routines—what to expect and what you expect of them—will help head off meltdowns. If you’re traveling, bring familiar toys and books, and make sure you have quiet one-on-one time like reading before bed.
5. Give them a role in preparation.
If you give gifts, decorate your home, or do holiday baking, try to give the children roles. Children usually feel less anxious and more valued if they’re participants in the process, and at holiday time, the preparations are often as fun and as meaningful as the end product.
6. Share with kids the meaning of your celebrations.
Whatever your faith, let kids know what you believe in and what the holidays mean to you. Try to connect gift-giving and holiday feasts with the ideas and values that inspire them.
7. Think about others.
Include your children in your volunteering and charitable giving—donating toys, collecting food for the needy, or using a web site like donorschoose.com to let them pick a project they would like to support.
8. Tame the gift monster.
Let’s be realistic: it’s probably not “visions of sugarplums” that are dancing in your kids’ heads at holiday time. Kids are focused on the gifts they hope to get, and you want it to be a good experience for them. But it’s important to keep your head and help them keep theirs.
9. Give yourself a break.
Don’t stretch yourself too thin trying to create the “perfect” holiday season. Decide what is important, prioritize, and say “no” to what you can’t handle.
10. Be sure to laugh.
Kids pick up their parents’ stress and tension, so they’re more likely to be irritable if you are. Have a sense of humor, enjoy your kids for who they are, and keep in mind that what you’ll all remember when it’s over is likely to be the unexpected moment when everybody was relaxed, not the brilliantly choreographed party, dinner, or outing.