In my last post, I discussed seven ways to lower your family's holiday stress this year. In this second part of the series, I’m including some more great ways I’ve heard about to avoid conflict and stress. There really are no "best ways" to navigate the holidays; each family has its own unique source of stress. These practical tips, however, may help your family find ways to enjoy rather than dread the bustle of the holiday season.
• Create your own traditions — Be willing to ignore old traditions, especially if they no longer work. Instead, find new ways to celebrate. At first, the change may be emotionally hard, but eventually the new traditions will take an important place. For example, when my husband decided to give his sons Christmas Day with their mother, he started celebrating on Christmas Eve. Now, our adult children and extended family look forward to our annual Christmas Eve dinner. The grandchildren enjoy opening their presents at our house, and then everyone can divide Christmas Day however they need to between biological family and in-laws. Similarly, our post-Thanksgiving soup-and-sandwich bar has become a strong tradition with a lot of extended family and close friends. Creating the new traditions for family gatherings has allowed us to expand our celebrations beyond the usual family members and to strengthen relationships throughout the entire family.
Shifting the celebrations also has given me and my husband the opportunity to create our own personal traditions. On Thanksgiving Day, we can find a good restaurant (usually an Indian buffet), and local event (such as an art exhibit). Spending time together with just the two of us has become an important part of our holiday activities. On Christmas Day, he and I can start on whatever trip we’ve decided to take between Christmas and the New Year. Instead of stressing over trying to have a perfect holiday, we can wind down from our usual busy schedules and pay attention to each other. Your family can find its own new traditions to create lasting memories. This year, set aside time to shift or create new traditions for your family. You will be surprised at how important they will become to your kids.
• Simplify, simplify, simplify — Work to simplify your holidays. Take stock of how your to-do list is adding extra pressure to your family, and figure out the most effective ways to streamline your holidays. The more you have on your list of things to do, the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong. Don't try to live up to someone else's high expectations of how your family should spent its time. Decide whether, for example, you really need to attend all of the holiday parties on your schedule or meet all of the social obligations you think you have. Say no more often, and opt out of some social activities. Substitute simple rituals that build relationships within your family, such as Friday night pizza or weekly game nights. Simple activities can be the best way to avoid stress and make the holidays a time of joy for your family.
• Embrace all of your kids equally — I shouldn’t have to repeat this obvious truth, but I am continually surprised at parents who don’t see anything wrong with treating kids differently. It doesn't matter if your kids are annoying or reject you or aren't with you often or will be there only a short period of time. They are all family, and you need to treat them that way. If you have foster kids or stepkids with you during the holidays, give everyone the same level of gifts. If you can’t afford to buy a new telephone for every child, then don’t buy one for your biological kids. Even if your stepchildren don’t visit often or your foster children are there only temporarily, don’t do anything to remind them that they don’t “really belong.” Try to plan family events when all of your kids can be present. If schedules make all-family events impossible, find other times to compensate and include the missing children. Do all that you can within the laws of physics to include all of your kids in family celebrations.
• Include Down Time — It is easy to get caught up in holiday events and end up rushing from one event to another. When you are drafting your schedule, build in some down time. You and your kids will need to decompress from time to time, and everyone can use some alone time in the middle of seasonal stress. Build that time into both the family schedule and your personal schedule. The Jewish and Christian ideas of a day off every week recognize an important fact about how humans are wired. We need time to recharge our batteries, and we will need it even more during the holiday season.
• Set Clear Boundaries Early — Our job as bonus or foster parents is a tough one, mainly because we have to make a one-way commitment to care about our kids even when they don’t want to be part of our family. We have to sacrifice our own preferences and focus on what our kids need. However, we also need to set boundaries of mutual respect. Being a doormat doesn’t help our kids in any way. As with every other facet of our relationship, set healthy boundaries on what you are willing to do and what you aren’t. We need to be willing to sacrifice more than feels comfortable, but draw boundaries before a relationship becomes unhealthy.
• Control What You Can — Worry about things that you can control, such as your attitude, and accept what you can’t change. Develop a sense of humor and don't let little things and small insults grow into big controversies. You can’t prevent some adults from manipulating a situation; all you can do is control your reaction. Sometimes you may have to just overlook negative comments for the sake of family harmony or recognizing the other person’s good traits. Other times, you may need to remove your kids from the line of fire. Whatever the situation, assess it in terms not of changing the other person, but how you can and should respond.
• Practice Healthy Habits — Finally, don’t let the whirl of the holidays cut into your time for healthy habits. Find time for regular exercise, as well as prayer or meditation. All of those are good for stress relief and self care. Even a short walk or a few minutes of deep breathing can lower the amount of stress you feel. Many of my friends avoid social media during the holidays, figuring that they don’t need to see any more perfectly curated holiday decorations, food, or outfits. That sort of break can do wonders for your mental health and stress levels. Whatever routines you use to recharge your batteries, keep those strong during this time of year.
This time of year can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. Consider which of these suggestions can lower stress in your life, and use them to jump-start your own ideas about helping your family navigate the holidays. Start planning now to build your family relationships, and you will be surprised at how much more calm your holidays can be.