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How to Take the Stress Out of the Holidays

Your kids may need help rising to the occasion 

We are reminded, every year at this time, how difficult holidays can be for people who are lonely or alone. But let's be honest: even for families rich in children, holidays can be stressful—both for parents and kids.

Why are holidays so fraught? Because expectations are heightened, and holidays can feel like a test of how happy and successful your family is. And if you have children with psychiatric or learning disorders, even favorite traditions can turn into a test of stamina and patience. Here are some tips to help minimize stress and make the holidays more fun and fulfilling.

1. Be open to change.
Talk with your kids about your traditions—which ones they love and which you might evolve to make them more fun or memorable for everyone. This is especially important when family dynamics have changed because of divorce, a new marriage or sibling, or a death in the family.

2. Be realistic.
Factoring in kids' limitations when you make plans will reduce stress on everyone. Kids who are anxious about meeting new people—or even encountering the extended family—will need support and realistic expectations. Kids who have trouble with organization will need help to succeed at gift-giving. Children who tend to be impulsive need structure to minimize disruptive behavior. Not overestimating your kids' patience and ability to focus will help you enjoy yourself more, too.

3. Prep kids for changes in routine.
Holidays represent a change in a family's normal schedule, and for some kids that's unsettling.  Preparing them for changes in their routines—what to expect and what you expect of them—will help head off meltdowns. If you're traveling, bring familiar toys and books, and make sure you have quiet one-on-one time like reading before bed.

4. Give yourself a break.
Don't stretch yourself too thin trying to create the "perfect" holiday season. Decide what is important, prioritize, and say "no" to what you can't handle.  

5. Be sure to laugh. 
Kids pick up their parents' stress and tension, so they're more likely to be irritable if you are. Have a sense of humor, enjoy your kids for who they are, and keep in mind that what you'll all remember when it's over is likely to be the unexpected moment when everybody was relaxed, not the brilliantly choreographed party, dinner, or outing.

Updated: December 15, 2014

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