Handling a Frantic Holiday Season 

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — and some would argue, the most stressful. You vow that this year will be different. But how? There are cards to mail, presents to wrap, cookies to bake, parties and programs to attend, and let’s not forget all the festive, memorable outings you can’t possibly miss.  

How do you manage to fit all the magic of the holiday into just one little month without turning into the Grinch?  

“The challenges we face during the holidays often revolve around setting unrealistic expectations of yourself and others, and not establishing healthy boundaries,” says Allie McLaughlin, therapist and owner of Cincinnati Renewed Wellness. 

To help make this holiday season the winter wonderland you have been dreaming of (and help keep the Grinch at bay), we’ve asked two experts for advice on how to handle potentially stressful situations you may find yourself facing this time of year.  

Stressful Situation #1 

Every year, you and your spouse travel back home for Christmas. This year, you would like for your children to wake up in their own beds on Christmas day. More than likely, this will hurt your parents feelings. You are nervous to have the conversation, but feel strongly about the importance of making these special memories in your own home with your family.  

Amber Stevens, licensed clinical psychologist and owner of Bridge Psychotherapy and Wellness in Cincinnati: It is important to be upfront, transparent and clear with family members that this year, you and your partner have decided to stay home to celebrate the holidays. Do so in a way that acknowledges your parents’ likely feelings of disappointment or sadness, honor these feelings as valid, and express that you will miss them. Indicate that your decision is not to hurt them, and continue to reinforce your hope that they will understand. Perhaps offer a compromise by scheduling a time when everyone can video chat (i.e., while the children are opening presents from the grandparents) to help all family members still feel connected to one another.  

McLaughlin: Remember, your parents likely experienced something very similar when you were a child. This is a common life and family transition. Be confident in your decision that you made with your spouse and lean on each other when challenges arise. If you are open to the idea, it might be beneficial to provide the option for people to come to you. This alters the tradition of location but maintains the tradition of being together. 

Stressful Situation #2 

Money is tight and you have a lot of gifts to buy. You would like your family to start drawing names for a gift exchange instead of purchasing individual gifts, but nobody seems to be on board.  

Stevens: It’s hard when you feel like you’re in a different boat than everyone else, especially regarding finances. Ask your family if they would be willing to at least try the “drawing names” strategy for one year. If people don’t like it, you can always go back to the way it was before, or brainstorm another method. People are often closed off to suggestions like these because they are fearful of change. Remind them that no decision has to be forever. Perhaps try to make it more fun by suggesting to draw two names: one for a serious gift and another name for a sillier, more playful gift. This allows people to gift to more than one person while also keeping it far more manageable financially.  

McLaughlin: This is challenging and uncomfortable because it involves the often-dreaded topic of money. There are ways of achieving your budget-friendly goal without the participation of everyone else. Set a gift budget and stick to your established boundaries. Opt for a discussion with family about other alternatives to assist with achieving a budget-friendly holiday season. Communication is key to establish expectations and facilitate mutual understanding. It’s OK if your decisions aren’t liked by everyone. Be confident in your choice, because it is allowing you to move through the season with less worry and stress. 

Stressful Situation #3 

As the holidays are approaching and you begin to think about everything that needs to be accomplished, your anxiety begins to sky rocket. You want to be less frazzled and enjoy the season, but everything feels important. Maybe this will be the year you don’t try to do it all. What do you say “no” to? Won’t you be letting people down?  

Stevens: It’s so easy to get caught up in all of the pressures of the holiday season. But here is the thing: The idea that “everything has to be done” is an absolute fallacy. One way to challenge this convincing notion is to make a list of all the things you feel like you have to do. Next to each item, rate them on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being for stressful things that do not fulfill you, and 5 being for things that you genuinely enjoy. We have to start allowing ourselves to say “no” to things that drain our tank rather than fill it. Give yourself permission to reflect on what’s most important to you and for you, and then make decisions based on this. By stretching yourself too thin and self-inflicting pressure to accomplish everything, you lose out on the ability to meaningful engage with family and friends, which is what the holiday season is truly about.  

McLaughlin: Create a list of realistically achievable tasks, start doing one thing at a time and recognize your accomplishments as you achieve them. Recognizing your accomplishments will motivate you to continue working toward your goal. It’s also important to feel empowered to say no! It’s OK to set boundaries for yourself. 

Stressful Situation #4 

Both your and your husband’s parents are divorced. You have a LOT of family to visit and only so much time. It feels rushed to try to cram it all into two days and would prefer to get together either before or after the holiday. You aren’t sure what your family will think and don’t want to disrupt everyone’s holiday plans. On the other hand, you don’t think you can handle another year of rushing from place to place. Does the date we get together really matter? What matters is that we all spend quality time together. Right?  

Stevens: I am a big believer in the idea that “they can’t say yes unless you ask.” If you find yourself overwhelmed by the prospect of traveling to visit everyone, express this to your family. Share that visiting everyone has felt rushed and you have found you miss out on spending quality, meaningful time together. Ask how they would feel if you altered the plans to allow for more quality time. Acknowledge that this would be different and perhaps difficult for others. But is this something they would be willing to try, even for just one year, to see how it feels? You can always reassess next year. If your family ultimately is not willing to compromise, I encourage you to still do what is best for you and your partner, even if it means pulling back from certain events.  

McLaughlin: Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries! It is so important to set your own personal boundaries so you can enjoy the holiday season. Discuss and agree upon a few schedule options with your partner that will allow you to enjoy the holidays. Then, present these options to your families. This allows them to have a choice in the plans, and facilitates the possibility for a compromise in the rescheduling or shifting of tradition. This may be changing the celebration days or alternating the location every year. Understand that you may not be able to please everyone with your new plans, and that is OK. You have to find a balance that works for you and your family. 

Whether you bake 100 cookies and deliver them to every person you know, or choose not to bake a single thing — that’s OK. Have conversations and decide what is best for your family this holiday season. Not everything in life is Pinterest-perfect. The important thing is being with those you love, setting healthy boundaries and celebrating the beauty of the season as stress-free as possible — together.  

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