Holiday Stress: How to Keep Calm and Avoid Fighting with Your Kids

By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

Mom showing stress at holiday

For parents dealing with child behavior problems, chances are the holidays make you feel even more stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed. And for good reason.

The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and family togetherness. And sometimes it is. But very often it’s not.

The parents that I work with every day are already at their wits’ end. Add the additional responsibilities and expectations around the holidays and things go from bad to worse.

The Trouble with High Expectations

Our culture tells us that the holidays are supposed to be happy, peaceful, loving times. We feel obligated to cook delicious meals, choose the perfect gifts, and present a beautiful home.

The expectations are high, but our families are imperfect, and we have trouble meeting expectations. As a result, we get stressed. And when that stress is mixed with disrespectful kids and judgmental relatives, we can start to feel like we’re somehow failing as parents.

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Anxiety is the Culprit

Anxiety is the culprit here because feeling anxious and reacting to our anxiety leads to lose it and react instead of responding calmly and thoughtfully. For most of us, losing it during this peak time of year goes against our ideal image of ourselves as calm and competent parents.

As a result, you’ll probably feel irritable and overwhelmed. To manage those bad feelings, you might start blaming your kids or judging yourself or your spouse.

Perhaps you’re particularly anxious about how your kids will behave when your parents are in town. Your tension is already high before they even arrive, and your children pick up on your anxiety and react to it by acting out. This causes you to lose it with your kids—right about the moment your parents walk through the door and look at you with judgment in their eyes.

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Anxiety is Contagious, and so Is Calm

Anxiety is highly contagious in families. Even happy events can cause stress, and feelings of stress can spread like wildfire. One comment from a relative such as “Why do you let your daughter walk all over you?” can put you over the edge. Statements like these can cause embarrassment, resentment, and anger.

Parents often ask me, “How can I manage to enjoy the holidays when I have so much to do and my kids are acting out in front of relatives? How do I keep my kids in line?”

Instead of pulling out techniques to keep your kids in line, I want you to ask yourself an entirely different question this year, and that question is, “How might I contribute—not cause, but contribute—to my child’s acting out behavior?” Ask yourself the following:

  • Are my expectations stressing my family?
  • Do I tend to become over-controlling and bossy when stressed?
  • Am I taking on too much responsibility for everyone’s good time and happiness?
  • Do I take on too much and not ask for enough help?

Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is:

  • What do I need to change in myself that will create more calm and peace inside of me?

The truth is, if you can get yourself under control and take responsibility for your anxiety levels, that feeling will spread to your family members. You will feel better and your kids will probably behave better too.

10 Tips to Keeping Your Cool This Holiday Season

Here are 10 things you can do this holiday season to keep cool and make the holidays bearable (and maybe even joyous!).

1. Your Child’s Behavior Is Not a Reflection of You

Remind yourself that your child’s behavior is not ultimately a reflection of you. When you think everything your child does is a reflection of you and your parenting, you will probably work too hard to control your child, and your child will push back even more.

Instead, give him consequences for his behavior and hold him accountable. After all, it’s his behavior that is the problem, not your’s.

Related content: Punishments vs. Consequences: Which Are You Using?

2. Keep Normal Routines

Try to keep to normal routines as much as possible. During the holidays, it’s easy for your kids to become over-stimulated. They’re tired from all the activity and lack of routine, have probably eaten too many sweets, and have spent too much time with siblings. As best you can, try to keep routines in place. And remember, the same household rules apply during the holidays as during the rest of the year (more on that below).

3. Get the Kids Involved

Ask family members, especially the kids, for help in planning and preparing for the holidays. Make your children feel like they’re an integral part of the events taking place, rather than a thorn in your side. Give them responsibilities and have them do some of the planning and the work involved in getting everything ready. This is not feasible in all situations, but I have seen it work great for many families.

4. Learn to Say “No”

Don’t let other people’s expectations push you to extremes or into doing too much or too little. Let go of the expectations and the “supposed to’s” and create your own criteria that make sense for your family at this time in your life. Maybe this year you simply won’t buy presents for everyone and will decide instead to pick names out of a hat. Or maybe you’ll just skip some of the seasonal events that aren’t fun anymore.

5. Don’t Make the Holidays a Free Pass for Bad Behavior

If your kids are misbehaving, hold them accountable just as you would during the rest of the year. Provide the consequences that you know are right for them, even if grandparents or aunts and uncles are suggesting “better” ways of disciplining them. If you have done the honest work of looking at yourself and the real needs of your children, then you’ll know how to best discipline them—even if your relatives have different ideas.

6. Don’t Let Others Control Your Emotions

Make it your number one commitment to not lose your cool no matter how others are behaving. You’ll feel better and will be the anchor that provides calm for all. You don’t have to hope for a good holiday season. You can decide to make it a good holiday season by recognizing that your good time is up to you and no one else.

Remember, you can decide how you will behave, no matter how others behave.

And, by making “keeping your cool” a number one priority, you’ll create a calm that will be contagious.

7. Talk to Yourself Nicely

We all have an inner dialog that goes on in our head’s. We actually have a lot of control over that dialog. Have some slogans you can say to yourself to help you get through the stress. You might say to yourself the following:

“Just let it go.”

“This too will pass.”

“It’s not personal.”

Try to swap negative dialog with one of these slogans. It really works.

8. Have Clear Expectations

Be clear about what you expect from family members. You should also be clear about what you are and aren’t responsible for.

Don’t over function for others as a way to manage your stress and then resent others because you feel burdened. Focus on yourself. Define your own expectations that make sense for you and your family.

9. If at First You Don’t Succeed

All is not lost if you lose it. Let’s say your child starts an argument with you when you’re out shopping or cooking a meal for your family. You’ve had enough, and you lose it and start screaming.

What can you say to yourself after that happens to get back on track?

Start by letting yourself know that it’s okay and understandable to lose your temper. There’s a lot of stress at this time of year. Give yourself a break and get right back on track. Be self-compassionate and check in with yourself. Ask yourself if you’re doing too much and buying into expectations that you actually don’t want to be doing.

10. Try Seeing Your Family with Fresh Eyes

The holidays can be a wonderful time to get to know your family. Try to see them through fresh eyes. Tell them about yourself and listen to them without needing anything in return. Think of some things you’re grateful for, and share your list with your family. It might be something small, like the fact that you can share a meal together. Or spend time together over the holidays. Or that you were able to get through your day without a fight.

The Bottom Line

It’s important to understand that we all carry expectations with us for the holidays. We don’t want our kids to embarrass us in front of our relatives. We don’t want our relatives to judge us. That stress spills onto our kids, who already may have behavior problems. They end up reacting to our anxiety by act outing and misbehaving even more.

Remind yourself this year that your child is not you. His bad behavior belongs to him, not you. If he’s acting out at a family gathering, instead of reacting by yelling or withdrawing, try saying:

“I’m sorry for the disruption. He’s having a hard time right now and hasn’t quite learned skills to better handle his stress. We’re working on it.”

The bottom line is that the holidays can be tough. But focus on what you can control, and that is you. Set your expectations appropriately and you may just finish the season with some good memories and, at least, your sanity.

About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

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