What was once a time for connecting with family and friends — with cookie exchanges, crafting decorations, goodwill, while enjoying the simple pleasures of a festive season — now seems to be overshadowed by stress. The resounding “I’ll never have enough time to get everything done” or “There’s just too much to do and my kids are driving me crazy,” from many parents, suggests we’ve become disconnected from what makes the holiday rituals special, meaningful. The confluence of factors — holiday preparation, high expectations, overspending, overdoing, entertaining — leads to exhaustion, easily undermining one’s emotional health. For some, the expectations far outweigh the reality, bringing disappointment, regret or sadness. When the letdown washes over us, we may realize it’s become a holiday “tradition.”

For some, time with family and friends who only show up once a year brings additional anxiety, particularly for parents judged and criticized for their children’s behavior. They describe their traditional family gatherings as unsettling or nightmarish, while they continue subjecting themselves to them. When family members comment or intervene in our interactions with our children, it’s important to establish respectful boundaries. Otherwise, holiday celebrations can be fraught with tension and sadness. That’s certainly a formula for significant post-holiday letdown.

Some of us may carry a family legacy we’re unable to shake. It’s challenging to erase what’s been passed on in our own families, despite a strong commitment to avoid behaving and reacting the way our parents did. When we’re under stress, especially when our children aren’t behaving as we want, that’s precisely what happens. When we’re “triggered,” we react with the same words or behaviors we learned from our parents — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Those of us who experienced extreme reactions, trauma, abuse or neglect must be intentional in creating new approaches when becoming parents, stopping the negative generational patterns. We can certainly react by going to extremes, overindulging our children in ways we never experienced, which can be just as damaging and unhealthy. As a new year approaches, consider what changes could make a positive difference, as this is the best gift you can give yourself and your children. Parents who use punishment, rather than discipline, more than they want or who realize they’re being too cold and distant need support in breaking the cycle.

Given our children do not arrive with manuals, reparenting ourselves to ensure we parent our children in a healthy, peaceful manner can be a New Year’s resolution. Understanding how children think and behave at different developmental stages provides insight into their various requests — the gifts, the certain “must haves” they didn’t receive — shaping our post-holiday letdown. Understanding the reasons driving particular requests can help parents encourage their child’s emotional growth, providing more possibility to avoid difficult struggles. Children’s wishes are now more strongly influenced by social media and by peer pressure. A preschooler who repeatedly asks for a certain “idol” figure may simply be crying out for more control in making choices. Another preschooler requesting more sophisticated gifts could be looking for recognition that she no longer is a baby. Sadly, childhood is far too fleeting, with early access to influential media screens and the distractions those provide. What happened to allowing our children to be bored, to experience disappointment, which can foster their imagination?

By listening and connecting to our children’s underlying needs, we can acknowledge their wishes without giving in to each one. Offering alternatives to requests that might be too costly or unrealistic, while helping our children brainstorm other options, teaches important lessons. Perhaps our children can work hard to save for a wish that we were unable to afford. There are so many opportunities to model the values we want our children to learn. The gift of time, our undivided attention, and meaningful experiences with our children and other family members can be far more enriching and sustaining than material possessions. The post-holiday letdown is often created by our own unbalanced expectations. The true measure is the symbolic value of any gift we give or receive, especially for our children. Be mindful that what’s most important to our children is any symbol of our love and respect for them.

As 2020 unfolds, embrace the changes you want to make, whether with your young or grown children. There will be times you can easily regress into the same pattern, hearing yourself threatening or criticizing a daughter or son. Ask yourself if your behavior is getting what you want. Does it resonate with what you heard from your mother or father? Do you remember how you felt as a child when you were threatened or judged? What can you work on, do differently, to connect with your child?

We all have a legacy, good or bad. How we navigate with that is our choice. If you’ve spent time over the holidays with family that triggered strong emotions, exacerbating unhealed wounds, it’s understandable there’s a letdown. With post-holiday blues, entering a new year offers the possibility of a fresh start, new commitments. It’s never too late to make changes that bring deep connection and healing. You can be the parent you want to be by reaching out for support. May peace and joy be with you in 2020.