How to handle the top five holiday stress triggers

Does your December to-do list feel a mile long? Here’s how to avoid overwhelming anxiety when faced with five common holiday stressors

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I once heard a saying that goes like this: “Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.” I agree—and that feeling is stress.

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Ukrainian Christmas, Kwanza or nothing at all, it’s almost impossible to avoid the December fluster. From the first appearance of department store tinsel, it builds to a feverish crescendo of baking, pageants, gifts, entertaining and travel that leaves parents (especially moms) caught in a knot of competing demands.

Before you spike your eggnog, though, here’s some expert advice on how to handle the top five holiday stress triggers. Consider it your first gift of the season.

1. The supermom meltdown
It was my twin girls’ first Christmas (they were six months old at the time), and my parents had flown all the way from Australia to share the big day. Snow had fallen, the tree looked lovely, and the air swelled with carols and the smell of coffee. The morning should have been pure bliss, but I spent the whole time in a whir of activity.

My incessant fussing was driving everyone nuts, myself included, but for some reason I couldn’t stop. By 3 p.m., I was on the stairs, sobbing uncontrollably as I realized that I had somehow forgotten to buy the chicken for the main course. All we had were side dishes.

The meltdown was acutely embarrassing because, for every other Christmas in my life, I’d kept things low-key. The most urgent decision had always been whether to have more dessert. (Answer: yes.)

But when I became a mom, I got swept up in holiday hype. While it’s easy for new parents to acknowledge that some priorities have changed—what is a clean house again?—we find it hard to apply that same logic to the holidays. We want to make sure it’s special for our kids.

To avoid this overload, and stairway meltdowns like mine, psychologist Karen Cohen, CEO of the Canadian Psychological Association, urges all parents to be realistic about what you can and can’t do, and to reassess your plans before the big day. Is it doable? Is it necessary? Will you be sane at the end of it all?

“When we talk about setting realistic expectations, it doesn’t mean lowering your expectations,” Cohen says. “It means making them realistic for the setting you are in.”

My family marched me upstairs for a nap while they prepared the sides for dinner. It was delicious—nowhere near the perfection I had been planning, but certainly good enough. There was an unexpected bonus, too: We had plenty of room for second helpings of dessert.

Read more: 5 ways to make the holidays better this year>

2. Travel and juggling family demands
For Mary Lester* and her husband, Dean, the December drill usually involves a three-hour drive from their home in Calgary to Edmonton, where they shuttle their toddler son, Oliver, between the homes of both Dean’s and Mary’s parents, plus their grandparents, aunts and uncles. As parents of the first grandchild in the family, they’re in high demand, and juggling all these schedules is exhausting. “It’s a constant battle,” Lester says. “We’re like a dog-and-pony show. Every year, somebody gets upset.”

This year the couple is striking back: They’ve announced they’re staying home for the first time. Their decision has been met with a frosty reception.

But family psychologist Maggie Mamen says creating your own rituals and spending time with your immediate family is very important. Extended family members need to understand the demands they place on harried travellers and consider spacing out the celebrations, or agree to visits only every other year.

If you do decide to skip a family event, don’t lie and say you’ll “try to get there” when you know you won’t. You might feel like you’re sparing people’s feelings in the short term, but Cohen says avoiding tough messages, or couching them in vague “maybes,” can just create more confusion. It’s better, she says, to be honest and arrange an alternative get-together. “Be sensitive but assertive—taking care of yourself is positive. You’ll be less likely to take on more and to end up in a place where you feel stressed or burdened,” Cohen says.

Read more: Flying with kids: How to have a stress-free flight>

3. Keeping up appearances
Before there was Pinterest, Fawn Fritzen used to scrapbook. Hours ticked by as she selected paper and stickers, crafted a layout and patiently wrote journal entries to preserve family memories. “I would get caught up,” the mom of two daughters in Whitehorse, Yukon, admits. But one day, while agonizing over where to place a photo, she realized anyone reading the journal years later wouldn’t care whether it angled left or right. How it looked for posterity didn’t count.

The self-imposed pressure to make a day look effortlessly flawless—and document the achievement—can be almost as strong as the pressure to pull off a picture-perfect holiday season. It can leave us feeling like we have somehow failed our kids, or don’t measure up as moms, adding a new layer to everyday parenting guilt.

“With small children you have to let go of perfection. They’re not going to do the decorations perfectly, like you would,” says Fritzen. “The kids are still happy, whether you’ve done that stuff for Pinterest or not.”

When our online lives are spent ogling blogs, Instagram feeds and recipe sites, letting go of unrealistic expectations can be difficult, but that’s exactly what we must do, says Cohen. “We need to look at the alignment of what we expect of ourselves, and our ability to get there.”

Picture your ideal holiday, and then assess your situation. How much can you accomplish? Instead of trying to do it all, focus on the parts that fit into your ability and budget.

“It’s not like there’s a clear line in the sand: ‘This is realistic, this isn’t,’” Cohen says. “Sometimes these are slippery slope kind of things.” Write down the most important elements that are key to enjoying your ideal celebration, whether that’s sharing a great meal, going tobogganing or singing cheesy carols. Talk about those hopes with the people you’ll be spending the day with, then, as a group, work out how to make it happen. Everything else is negotiable.

Read more: 25 tips for easy holiday hosting>

4. Shop ’til you drop
Holiday shopping is its own kind of hell that sends many credit cards into the red. Don’t feed the frenzy by treating a child’s letter to Santa as an itemized “must-get” list.

Jennifer Campbell-Nutbrown, a mom of two in Kitchener, Ont., says she found the perfect solution a couple of years ago when she heard this gift-giving rhyme designed to rein in spending: “Something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read.”

Her son and stepdaughter now receive just four gifts from their parents. “It made me really stop overspending and overdoing it with my kids,” she says. “There is more meaning, less stuff.”

Children should be told early and often that gifts are a privilege, says Mamen, and parents should know it’s OK to buy just one thing from a wish list. Also, don’t feel compelled to spend exactly the same amount on each of your children: Any discrepancies will even out over the long haul. “It’s really important for children to understand it’s not all about spending money. Christmastime is a time for giving, not just receiving.”

As for adults, consider skipping the gifts altogether and just buy for the children in the family. Or draw names from a hat so that each relative is buying for just one other relative. Some people might not like the idea, but setting spending limits or having a Secret Santa could ease the holiday stress, and cost, for everyone.

Read more: Money: how to recover after the holidays>

5. Unhappy families
For divorced or separated parents, holidays can add additional obstacles to what’s already likely to be rough terrain. If you have a combined family, you might be juggling four schedules. If your children are with your partner, perhaps you’re alone for the first time in years. Unless all parties can rise above the emotional turmoil, the holidays can become a bitter experience.

The same can be said for families torn by personality conflicts, or if two people (or factions) aren’t speaking.

Family psychologists like Mamen counsel the families who can’t make it work. Emotions can be heightened during this busy season. “Christmas is often the most stressful time for some people. It focuses some issues that are actually ongoing issues through the rest of the year,” she says. If your holiday plans require other people to act in ways they usually don’t—say, sparring siblings or factions putting aside their squabbles for the first time in ages in order to survive a family dinner—it’s wise to revise your expectations.

For those who celebrate Christmas, Mamen advises to think beyond December 25. Aside from religious observances, the other components—turkey, eggnog, presents—can be done on any day. “The best way to resolve tension is to try to come up with as fair a distribution as possible,” Mamen says. “Be adults about it. Realize you may need to be sensible.”

For grandparents, that can mean acknowledging the competing demands on their offspring and becoming more flexible. For parents, it can mean keeping a long-term perspective and conceding your hopes this year with the understanding you’ll have priority next year. Try being open-minded about different ways to celebrate—you may have to give up some of the holiday traditions you love in order to embrace new ones.

Read more: Blended families: celebrating the holidays>

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