’Tis the season to be merry ... or to be stressed, anxious, exhausted, resentful, guilty, overwhelmed. The holidays are bittersweet for many, as pressure mounts to meet gift expectations and attend social events and family gatherings that are not always fun and relaxing. We might be more impatient with our children, less available to spend time with them. We may believe we must provide the best possible holiday for them, or we feel tremendous anxiety to spend more than we can afford to spend on them.

Although there are many reasons for increased stress at this time of year, I’m focusing on just these: 1) parents overextended and exhausted by jumping through hoops to ensure everyone has the best possible holiday experience; and/or 2) parents feeling increased stress, anxious about their children’s behavior and having their parenting judged by extended family during holiday gatherings. Not everyone is excited to be with family, especially when it diminishes confidence and self-esteem and/or brings challenging family dynamics — with grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, etc. — trying to conform to the expectations that you MUST follow “true family traditions.” If you feel you can’t speak up, or your opinion doesn’t matter, or that no one listens to you, or that your parents still treat you like a child, it’s pretty likely the holidays will be stressful. If you’re unusually stressed and short-fused, your children will react in similar ways, with their confusion and anxiety manifesting in behavioral changes, some of which won’t be good.

First, some suggestions for dealing with the Christmas gift-gifting overload, by offering these “gift certificates” to your children:

• This entitles you to an hour of my full attention, without any distractions or interruptions (totally unplugged!).

(You could make a book of these to “cash in” throughout the coming months.)

• This entitles you to a long walk in the woods with Mom/Dad. 

• This entitles you to a quiet afternoon of hot chocolate and stories/reading together.

• This entitles you to a special back rub and face massage.

• This is for two hours of baking together ... or sledding together.

And so on.... Tap into your creative, playful, imaginative side!

Shape your own, knowing what would fit best for each of your children. Each of these “presents” is about giving “presence,” the promise of sharing special time together. There’s nothing children love more than having their parents’ undivided attention while spending fun time together. This can also be offered to your partner/spouse, siblings, cousins, and dear friends. There’s no monetary expense involved, simply giving your attention. The only expectation is to show up, to be fully present for the amount of time and energy committed, and to make genuine connection with that special person. There could be some initial disappointment that they didn’t get the new whatever (that would have cost far too much money). You can hear and connect to their feelings, without having guilt or resentment.

Second, when you’re trying hard to use connective parenting, although still a work in progress, you may feel or see your parents’ disapproval with how you’re parenting, not knowing how to respond. Your way is likely quite different from how they parented, which can be unsettling, even a bit threatening, to your parents, as well as other family members. You may quickly abandon your “enlightened” approach under the judgmental eyes of your extended family. Any changes in your communication style — even using conflict mediation — may be intimidating, increasing anxiety in others. Thus, some suggestions on how to approach these stressful interactions with relatives during family gatherings:

“I understand you’d like to have the schedule a certain way. That works for you and it doesn’t really work for us. Let’s figure out something that works for all of us.” 

“The children can be quite loud and ramped up when they’re overwhelmed with all the holiday excitement. I can either take them outside to play for a while or would you like them to stay here with their boisterous activity?”

“I appreciate you like to have a peaceful, relaxing dinner, which I enjoy too. I suggest we have the children eat before us, so they can go back and forth between the tree and the table while we’re having our meal.”

“I know our parenting is different from how you parented. We’re doing the best we can, and learning as we go. It would really help to have your support.”

“Samantha’s behavior can be hard to tolerate sometimes. She gets very anxious when she’s around lots of people and stimulation. I’m trying to understand what she needs before she starts unraveling. I wasn’t paying close enough attention while we were all talking, so I need to give her my support now to help her get centered.” 

“It’s not helpful when you and dad criticize how I’m parenting. What I would like is your love, acceptance, and understanding. I’m sure you can remember feeling the same way when you were raising us.” 

Keep your expectations realistic. Create your own holiday traditions, ones that work best for you and your family. Wishing you a safe, peaceful, joyous holiday!

Please send me your questions.