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Holiday stress can take away the magic of the season

In a new national poll from the University of Michigan Health, one in four parents report having overly idealistic holiday expectations. The parents admit that the stress associated with trying to live up to these expectations may take away from the holiday magic for their kids. 

Overall, one in five respondents acknowledged that their stress level negatively affects their child’s enjoyment of the holidays.

“People are surrounded by images depicting the holidays as a time of peace, love and joy,” said Sarah Clark, co-director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. “Many parents want to give their children those perfect magical memories to treasure for years to come.”

“But all of the behind the scenes work to make that vision come true could have the opposite effect for some families. Excessive parental stress can add tension and diminish the joy children associate with the season.”

Nearly all of the parents said that the holidays are generally a happy time for their family, yet one in six rated their stress level as high during the holiday season. According to the results, nearly twice as many mothers experience high stress compared to fathers.

“The holiday hustle and bustle, long to-do lists, and social gatherings are among the biggest stress triggers,” said Clark.

“Stress may also be tied to negotiating holiday plans with different family members and the cost of gifts, travel and other holiday activities. With the resurgence of COVID in some parts of the country, trying to keep all family members healthy can cause additional worry.”

Some of the most common sources of holiday stress are too much on the to-do list and family gatherings. Nearly one-third of parents say stress comes from extra shopping, keeping family members healthy, and household finances.

“For many parents, stress is tied to placing unrealistic expectations on themselves to create a joyful holiday even if they don’t have enough time, money or help to celebrate in the way they’ve envisioned,” said Clark. 

She suggests for families to sit down and talk about what everyone looks forward to during the season. Whether it’s watching certain holiday movies, seeing Christmas lights at a favorite venue, or spending a day baking and decorating sugar cookies, Clark says not to skip activities that truly are family favorites.

Another strategy to dodge holiday stress is to cut or minimize the number of holiday functions you attend, the time spent cooking certain foods, or gift exchanges with extended family.

“One strategy is to talk as a family about holiday plans and priorities. Parents may have misconceptions about what their child’s favorite holiday memories and traditions are – they could actually be much simpler than you think.”

“Once you know what’s important to keep, you can discuss reducing effort for some holiday preparations. It’s OK for traditions to evolve over time, and for families to redefine what the ‘perfect’ holiday looks like to them.”   

The survey respondents reported on the most effective ways to reduce their holiday stress, including time alone, listening to music, exercising, and attending prayer/religious services. More mothers said that they get help from family members, while more fathers turn to work as a way to reduce stress.

The holiday break itself can be a major source of stress. “An underappreciated source of stress for many parents is having school-age children spending more time at home during the holiday break,” said Clark. “In most families, school forces a daily routine, with specific times for waking up, getting out the door, bedtime, and meals.”

“It’s natural to want children to have fun, but parents should strive for a happy medium that gives kids a break from the structured schedule of the school year without experiencing lack of sleep or a poor diet that may cause irritability. Sticking to some routines will likely help make everyone happier and family time together more enjoyable.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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