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8 Ways to Cope with Holiday Stress

By Zoe Eliopoulos

The holidays are far from idyllic and may be even harder due to the pandemic.

For many, the holidays are anticipated as idyllic—a long-awaited time to connect with family and friends, share memories, play games, watch familiar movies watch sports, cook together and eat, eat, eat, and worry about losing all that unnecessary and unhealthy weight in the New Year.

But let’s paint a picture about this year—one we all sadly know well. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a substantial mental health toll on all of us. Kids and parents in isolation; most of us missing the joy of the holidays last year at the peak of the pandemic; tragic loss of loved ones. The outcome has had a huge impact on our kids. Depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness, suicidal thinking, and behavior has skyrocketed. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in child and teen mental health.

So, how do we navigate these frenzied days? How do we stay on even keel? It turns out that there are some things we can do to manage the tough times, and though many of these things seem obvious.

Here are 10 important points to remember:

1. Pace yourself (if possible).

Adults and children rarely do well when they’re rushed. Kids detect the panicked demeanor of their parents, and parents then get irritable when their anxious kids act out. So, don’t do it all at once. If you can, spread out the errands and ask your family members to help with the chores and preparations.

2. Pick your battles.

The already present frenzy means that most attempts at reprimand will be met with greater than normal emotional responses. If you tell your teenager to take her feet off the dashboard, you might get more than the average earful, and it might not be worth that level of discord. Save your angry moments for the times when things are really going south.

3.Plan fun things. Shopping in crazed malls with a zillion people all fighting for the latest coveted toy or the same cup of coffee is rarely fun. Remember that you can also shop online—for both convenience and safety—and enlist other family members to help. This is the time for incentives (read: gentle bribes). Your school-aged kid will be a lot more malleable if they can engage in a fun flick or digital game. Some may be virtual this year, but most kids are now used to virtual activities. And try to play with each other at home. Playing board games or cards, watching old home videos or slide shows, doing a crafts project, cooking a cool dessert, or singing or doing karaoke together (even if out of tune) are activities never forgotten. Memories can last forever, whereas toys and other presents might lose their value over time.

4. Find virtual ways to connect.

Some family members will not be able to gather in person this year—whether it’s due to travel costs, family schedules, or safety concerns. Set up virtual ceremonies, like singing together, sharing toasts, reading bedtime stories. You can even do family projects, like making a holiday Spotify playlist, or setting up a group text to share a photo every day. We yearn to be together. Be creative about finding digital ways to connect.

5.If times are tough, talk about it. The economy has gotten better for some, but the holidays still remind working-class families that luxuries they could afford five or ten years ago are sometimes no longer possible. Don’t let that issue go unrecognized. Kids will notice what’s missing, and in doing so may imagine something much worse than the truth. In a way that makes sense for your child’s age, tell them that there is less money this year, but that the same amount of fun, goodwill, and love remains. Ask them, despite constraints this year, how we can still maintain family closeness and holiday joy. And if times are tough because of political discourse and disagreements, try to have conversations to clear the air; put disagreements on the table, and try to come up with reasonable solutions. It may initially add to the stress but holding in resentments will surface in other ways that may make matters worse.

6. Be aware of worsening psychological suffering.

As we noted, psychiatric symptoms often worsen during the holidays. This makes sense—just as asthma worsens with dust, psychiatric symptoms worsen with stress. There is, however, an even more insidious stressor with the holidays, and as noted are compounded by the increase due to the pandemic. People hear nothing but messages that they are supposed to be happy. That message can make individuals with psychiatric conditions suffer even more if they are already not doing well. Help your loved ones to get the extra care they need, and don’t hesitate to call your doctor or a helpline. Those calls can be life-changing and even lifesaving.

7. Don’t forget those who are not there.

Someone is always missing during the holidays. It may seem painful to bring up a lost one, or a family member who cannot make it home, but telling stories, watching old videos, and looking at photos is always helpful in bringing the family together. Kids love to hear stories about family members—where they came from, what they did, what they’re doing now. Don’t forget that physical absence is not the same as emotional absence.

8. Keep the focus on gratitude.

Every year has its ups and downs. The holidays can be an important venue for reflecting on seminal moments in family and personal life and most importantly in relationships. It’s fitting that we traditionally sing Auld Lang Syne New Year’s Eve. This tune never fails to evoke nostalgia. Keeping the focus on gratitude—how grateful we are to be together regardless of the adversities or losses we have suffered—is resilience-building.


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