Gene Beresin, MD, and Steve Schlozman, MD, of the MassGeneral Hospital for Children Psychiatry Department offer advice to parents on managing holiday stress.

Taking a Deep Breath: Avoiding Holiday Stress

29/Nov/2012

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Let’s just paint a little picture.  It is a picture we already know pretty well, but still every year this picture seems to take many of us by irritable surprise.

It is cold outside.  The wind makes it worse, and the little ribbon that your kid tied on your car antenna to signify the first day of school (which seems like a thousand years ago now) flaps plaintively in the December wind, frayed by the salt and the rain and the snow and the sleet and the palpable frustration that batters it day in and day out because…

You are driving up one aisle and down another in a very busy parking lot.  There have been a few near misses, cars pulling out of briefly empty spaces, but there’s always someone waiting for that space, getting there just a second before you.  Your car is a cacophony of seasonal torture, the pop music on the radio mercilessly full of holiday cheer, your little one in the car seat working on an epic cold and the corresponding runny nose and cough that comes with it, your school aged kid mad that everyone on earth seems to be shopping on the same day and thus kicking the back of your seat, and your teen sitting with her legs on the dashboard while she sullenly tunes you out in favor of her iPod and it’s noise cancelling earphones.

‘Tis the season…

Study after study shows us, year in and year out, that the holidays are stressful – stressful for parents and for kids.  (Like we need a study for this!)  People are cranky, irritable, rushed and unruly. All of us, kids and adult alike, await the holidays with great anticipation and expectations – family, fun, sharing presents, doing things together. 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.  Family conflict: Do I really want them to be over here that many days? How can I afford all these gifts when the bills are so high? Why did grandma have to get sick now? Do they really need all this extra time at work NOW? And for kids: how can I really get my parents to get me that iPod? Why can’t mom and dad (divorced last year) not speak or even decide on who stays when whom and when? I thought holidays were supposed to be fun. None of my friends are around!

People with psychiatric disorders often have an even harder time.  Depression and substance abuse worsen, and suicide attempts appear to increase.  Don’t misunderstand – the holidays are also wonderful, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we ignored the yearly misery that the holidays can potentially engender.

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

It turns out that there are some things we can do manage the tough times, and though many of these things seem obvious, it is their very obviousness that often cause us to forget.  Here are nine 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 understandably 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 that 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.  Remember that emotions are always raw at the holidays.
  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 and enlist your family to join in the shopping!  Furthermore, some of the best movies come out around the holidays.  This is the time for incentives (read – gentle bribes).  Your school -aged kid will be a lot more malleable if he gets a chance to laugh at a silly holiday flick or a seasonal puppet show.  Local libraries arrange readings; schools have fairs – attend these activities with your kids.  It’ll make the necessary shopping more palatable for all of you.  And try to play with each other at home! Board games, cards, watching old home videos, favorite movies, doing a crafts project, cooking a cool dessert, or singing together (even if out of tune) are activities never forgotten. These memories can last forever, whereas toys and other presents might lose their value over time. 
  4. IF TIMES ARE TOUGH, TALK ABOUT IT– the economy has gotten better, but the holidays still remind families that luxuries that they could afford five or ten years ago are sometimes no longer possible or wise.  Don’t let that issue go unrecognized.  The kids are for-sure noticing what’s missing, but the kids will imagine something much worse than the truth.  This is pretty much a universal rule.  In a way that make sense for your child’s age, tell him or her that there is less money but that the same amount of fun and good will and love remains.  Toddlers and younger children especially will be glad for this discussion – many young children interpret less toys as less love.  That’s not spoiled behavior; it is just they way kids think. Helping them to remember that they are loved just as much will make a difference. But remember to talk to your kids in a way they can understand. Explaining economic problems to school age kids is different from teens. The adolescents have a greater understanding of the hardships of financial pressure, and they’ll appreciate the extent that you involve them in nuanced and sophisticated discussions.
  5. TRY ALTERNATIVE WAYS OF GIVING – While many see the holidays as a time to be excessive (eating, spending), maybe there are alternatives. If your family has economic hardship, try picking names out of the hat, and each family member gives another ONE gift of a certain amount. This way there are fewer gifts, but perhaps correspondingly greater consideration of each present given.   This also keeps the meaning of giving is front and center – not an overload of presents that fosters excess. The holidays may be better spent sharing time together rather than spending too much on too many and not taking the time to simply be with each other. Giving TIME is much more precious than GIVING GIFTS. Playing together is never forgotten. That electronic gizmo often IS (and often breaks!)
  6. BE AWARE OF WORESNING 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.  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 might need, and don’t hesitate to call your doctor.  Those calls can be life changing and even life saving.
  7. 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 are doing now. Don’t forget that physical absence is not the same as emotional absence.
  8. DON’T LET THE GHOSTS OF HOLIDAYS PAST HAUNT YOU – Many people find the holidays incredibly stressful as they painfully recall holidays in the past. This is especially the case for families with old and not easily forgotten family conflicts. Adults might recall the bitter disputes between their parents, fights between parents and grandparents, or battles between parents and kids. Some families have individuals who experienced the holidays under traumatic situations involving domestic violence, alcoholism and substance abuse. 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 without resolution on past grievances is not likely to be productive. It is far better to acknowledge the pain (after all, the kids and others already know that these are not easy times) and then to try and make life in the moment a better one for all.
  9. DON’T AIM FOR PERFECTION – A sure formula for depression, demoralization and upset is setting too high standards for the holidays. Sometimes this is a reaction to one’s tough times at home in holidays past; for others it is trying to make this special time of the year ideal. Of course, no dinner is perfect; something breaks; someone gets into an old family fight. This is the normal course of things. It is good to keep in mind that something will not go according to plan, and expect it rather than let it catch you off guard. Setting too high expectations for the holidays is certain to upset you and your kids – they already know that you are stressed.

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