Coping With Holiday Stress

December 20, 2016

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Posted in: Hot Topics, Podcasts

Intro music written and performed by Dr. Gene Beresin.
Outro music arranged and performed by Dr. Gene Beresin.

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

It’s 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’re 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 runny nose and cough that come with it, your school-aged kid mad at everyone apparently 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 its noise-cancelling earphones.

‘Tis the season…

Study after study shows us that the holidays are stressful—stressful for both parents and kids. (Like we needed a study to tell us that!) People are cranky, irritable, rushed and unruly. All of us, kids and adults alike, await the holidays with great anticipation and expectations—family, fun, presents, togetherness. 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.

For parents:

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? (Or worse, Why did Grandpa’s death have to happen so close to the holidays?)

Do they really need all this extra time from me 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 decide on who stays where and when and with whom?

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 we stay on even keel?

It turns out that there are some things we can do to manage the tough times, and though many of these things seem obvious, it’s their very obviousness that often causes us to forget. Here are 10 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 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, as well as enlist your family to help. 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! Playing board games or cards, watching old home videos, 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 they could afford five or ten years ago are sometimes no longer possible. 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. 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, goodwill and love remains. Toddlers and younger children will especially be glad for this discussion—many young children interpret fewer toys as less love. That’s not spoiled behavior; it’s just the 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-aged kids is different than explaining such matters to teens. Adolescents have a greater understanding of the hardships of financial pressure, and will appreciate the extent to which 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 is experiencing economic hardship, try picking names out of a hat, and having each family member gives another ONE gift of a certain amount. This way there are fewer gifts, but perhaps greater consideration for each present given. This also keeps the meaning of giving front and center. 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 one another. Giving TIME is much more precious than giving GIFTS. Playing together is never forgotten, whereas that electronic gizmo often IS (and often breaks!).
  6. BE AWARE OF WORSENING 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 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’re 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 to be incredibly stressful when 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 on past grievances without resolution is not likely to be productive. It’s far better to acknowledge the pain (after all, the kids and others already know that these are not easy times) than to try and make life in the moment better for all.
  9. KEEP THE FOCUS ON GRATITUDE – Every year has its ups and downs. The holidays can be an important venue for reflecting on seminal moments in family and personal life and most importantly in relationships. It’s fitting that we traditionally sing Auld Lang Syne New Year’s Eve. This tune never fails to evoke nostalgia. Keeping the focus on gratitude—how grateful we are to be together regardless of the adversities or losses we have suffered—is resilience-building. There exists something precious in family conversations about the past, especially if we emphasize the gifts of being together in the here and now.
  10. DON’T AIM FOR PERFECTION – A sure formula for depression, demoralization and upset is setting standards too high for the holidays. No dinner is perfect; something breaks; someone gets into an old family fight. This is the normal course of things, and it’s beneficial to keep in mind that something will likely not go according to plan rather than letting it catch you off guard. Setting expectations too high for the holidays is certain to upset you and your kids—they already know that you’re stressed.

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

A version of this post originally appeared and was written by the authors (Beresin and Schlozman) on WBUR’s CommonHealth on December 23, 2014.

Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, M.D.

Gene Beresin, M.D. is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also a ...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.

Steven Schlozman

Steven Schlozman, M.D.

Steven Schlozman, M.D. is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is als...

To learn more about Steven, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.

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