The University Record, December 10, 1996

Minimize holiday stress through planning, realistic expectations

By Leslie de Pietro
Family Care Resources Program


The holidays always seem to sneak up on us, producing anxiety and stress that can spill over to our families. Although it's the last thing we want, holidays often can end up in tears, arguments, disappointment and sheer exhaustion.

Minimizing stress takes planning, flexibility and a willingness to let go of some unrealistic expectations. Begin the process by asking yourself a few questions: "What are my hopes for my children this holiday season? What would I like for them to remember about the holidays when they are adults? What are my goals for myself?"

Sit down as a family and explain that you'd like to plan together some ways to make the holidays more relaxed and fun for everyone. Make it clear that you'd like to experiment this year with making the holidays better. Then have everyone list their goals---all of them, very specifically. You may be surprised to hear that your children have some goals that are quite similar to yours. Do not censor anyone's choices. Then list the ways you could make these goals a reality. Vote on the top five goals, post them on your refrigerator and have everyone reread them periodically.

The important thing is to decide together what you want to take away from the holidays and then not to let yourselves get mired in holiday hype and forget your list of goals. Be clear with each other---this method will work only if you all agree to stick to your plan.

Finally, plan time to evaluate the holiday. The first time doesn't have to be perfect---it just has to be better than last year.

A few practical tips may help reduce holiday stress levels, as well:


List all the people you will buying (or making) gifts for, marking those whose gifts will need to be mailed. Shop by catalog for those whose gifts will be mailed.


Set a limit on what family members (or friends) can pay for gifts for one another; or draw names so that each person has to purchase just one gift.


Plan to take a vacation day during the week to do the bulk of your holiday shopping. Carry a list with a couple of possible gift ideas for each person on the list and the amount you plan to spend.


Have the courage to say no. If your calendar is so crowded that exhaustion is inevitable, say you're busy when another invitation arrives.


Let go of the notion that you alone must make it a "perfect holiday" for everyone. Make a list and divide the responsibilities and tasks between family members. Delegate. Let go of unrealistic expectations.


Don't feel you have to live up to the image of the perfect holiday feast depicted in commercials and women's magazines this time of year. Ask your kids to write down their two favorite types of holiday cookies and make those. Better yet, buy them at the bakery.


Single parents: Don't get caught in one-upmanship with your ex-spouse. Don't try to over-compensate with piles of gifts. What will matter to the children in the long run is your relationship with them, not the amount of money you spend.


Involve the children in holiday preparations. Don't be so busy doing for them that you do without them. You will be surprised at how much fun you can have if you let them participate actively.

Above all, be gentle with yourself. Plan some time alone to recharge your battery. Repeat over and over, "I am not June Cleaver---nor would I want to be!" Take a long, leisurely bubble bath after the kids go to bed. Schedule a massage. Put on an exercise video and resolve to eat moderately and exercise (shopping counts!). And remind yourself of what is important in the long run---some wonderful memories of family and friends together, not the number of presents or their cost. As the bumper sticker says: "He who dies with the most toys---still dies!"