With a little planning—and forgiveness—surviving the holidays without losing your temper is possible

It’s the holiday season—you’re supposed to be happy, jolly, merry… right? RIGHT? Maybe not entirely. If you’re like most parents, the holidays come with equal parts Christmas cheer and seasonal stress. On one hand, we want to spoil our kids and feel their joy as they tear off the wrappings of their brand-new bikes or coveted toys—on the other, on the other, we can’t help but see red (the bad kind) as a result of all the ways they act out leading up to the big day.

And it’s no wonder: Between the added expenses, event overload, family drama, and travel plans, there can be more than merriment lurking behind those “perfect” holiday moments. In fact, according to a C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital report, one in six parents reports being more stressed during the holidays (with moms reporting twice as much stress as dads). As for what causes most yuletide woes, parents ranked holiday shopping, keeping kids healthy, household finances, party planning, meal-making, and criticism from family members as the biggest offenders

The holidays usually mean increased spending, a change of schedule, interaction with extended family, and of course, less sunlight, says Los Angeles-based psychologist Tara Klein. “We need to be extra careful about self-care during this time to have the emotional resilience for all the ups and downs that go along with the holidays.”

What that means is with planning—and forgiveness (of you and your kids!)—surviving the holidays without completely losing it on your little sugarplums is possible. Here’s how to make it happen:

Find Ways to Alleviate Financial Stress

If you’re worried about how to afford all those gifts—you’re not alone. A poll conducted by debt resolution company Beyond Finance found that more than two-thirds of people said holiday spending ups their stress levels—82 percent worried they won’t be able to pay for all the gifts they want to buy. Here are some tips for surviving the holidays when it comes to finances:

Make a budget—and stick to it. Be realistic about what you can spend and map out your gift-giving list on paper. Then, be sure to stick to your plans! Need some help? Microsoft offers this free budget-making template

Get creative with gifts. You don’t have to buy all your gifts; there are plenty of crafts and “I Owe You” items that your family and friends would be just as happy to receive. Offer your scrubbing skills to a relative in need of a car wash. Spend the evening babysitting for a friend overwhelmed with her littles (Best. Gift. Ever.). And, DIYers: From fresh-baked cookies to homemade photo gifts, this is your chance to shine!

Opt for whole-family gifts. If you have several siblings and an army of nieces and nephews, opt for whole-family gifts that can simplify your giving load. Family board games, outdoor lawn games, and food deliveries (like this candy care package or this gorgeous cupcake platter) can be easy cross-generational gifts.

Take advantage of free shipping. While there is an anxiety-ridden rite of passage to braving the mobbed post office during the days before Christmas—it’s unnecessary. Save money on shipping by taking advantage of stores that offer free shipping for purchases.

Be honest with family members. It’s OK to simmer down the expectations. Tell your extended family members that your budget is tight this year and that they’ll receive “creative” gifts (or just cards) instead of pricey gifts. Most people will welcome your honesty—it may even take the load off them, too—and you’ll feel better knowing everyone knows what to expect.

Related: 29 Holiday Gifts That You Can Make at Home

Learn How to Handle the Constant “I WANTs” from Your Kids

surviving the holidays with kids means managing their expectations

Is your child summoning her inner Veruca Salt whenever you take her to Target? Deep breaths! It’s hard to handle the barrage of “I wants” that can possess our kids during the holidays, but it’s not entirely their fault. After all, every ad and conversation they have about Christmas likely has to do with gift-giving. So the wanting is normal, but it’s the demands you need to curb. Here’s how to manage:

Make a Wish Board to help kids feel heard. Parent coach Abigail Wald—author of a Parenting Survival Deck that includes tips for handling tricky kid behaviors (click here to get the “Want Wanter” card for free!)—recommends that families make a Wish Board to help kids organize their holiday wants.

Let them put every single thing that they want on there. Then, throughout the next month or two, you can help them physicalize it by cutting out little pictures and moving things up and down the list of where they want them. It can become a fun little connective art project that the two of you have together, which takes down some of the wanting,” says Wald.

She also suggests checking back in with the list: Every time your child thinks they would have played with that one thing, put a checkmark by it; whichever has the most checkmarks by the end might be what they want the most.

Talk about giving. We all know what the holidays are supposed to be about, but to the typical kid, it’s all about getting presents. Help your kids see it in a different light by talking about what your family will give the grandparents or other extended family members; have them make small gifts to pass out to friends, neighbors, and teachers; take part in a neighborhood toy drive or an “Adopt a Family” campaign. The more they experience the joy of giving, the less they may want.

Take pictures. When your child begs for a particular toy at a store, pull out your phone and take a picture of the item to add to their special Wish List. Often, acknowledging what the child wants by photographing it is enough to quiet the wanting.

Teach them how to properly accept gifts (even the ones they don’t like). It might not be easy to watch, but it’s normal for kids to complain when they open a sweater instead of a Switch. Your kid is not “spoiled “or “ungrateful;” they’re just a developing human that hasn’t refined their filter. Yet. 

To help, try this: Wrap an assortment of random items—a rock from the driveway, a  toddler fork, a stick—and put them wherever you open holiday gifts. Then, take turns opening gifts and showing an exaggerated level of gratitude over each thing (OMG, “I’ve always wanted a fork like this!” “Thank you so much! This rock will look perfect on my dresser!” or “Wow, this stick is PERFECT!”). You’ll get enough giggles to get the point across, and hopefully, your kids will transfer the game to real life when they receive their next sweater.

Try to Keep (at least some of) Your Kids’ Routines

a mom trying to survive the holidays by keeping a routine with her kids

For kids, veering from the everyday routine can be a recipe for disaster. And even though the holidays can mean no school, travel, and a candy-lined upheaval of the norm, you can still keep at least some of your regular rituals, including finding time for naptime and following traditional bedtime routines.

As Harvard Health Publishing Senior Faculty Editor Claire McCarthy, MD, states, “As tempting as it may be to let kids stay up late and sleep late throughout the holidays, try to stay within an hour of usual times, except for special occasions (like New Year’s Eve). Same goes for mealtimes (be sure your kids get three healthy meals a day, preferably with you and not in front of the television).”

Keep Kids Busy—Especially During Family Gatherings.

If your kid has something to do, they are less likely to be tugging on your arm demanding attention or melting down on the living room floor over a broken candy cane. Bring toys or games to keep your toddlers busy during family gatherings, and let older children help by passing out hors d’oeuvres or taking guests’ coats.

Related: 11 Christmas Minute to Win It Games the Kids Will Love

Make a List of All the Events—and Decide Which Ones to Skip

School concerts! Holiday office parties! Family gatherings! Santa! There is so much going on over the holidays that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT ALL. Write a list of all the events happening over the month and decide which ones you can do and which ones you can cut. Then, put all those things on a family calendar that everyone can see. This way, you don’t overextend yourself (and your kids know what to expect). The more relaxed you feel, surviving the holidays without losing it on your kids won’t feel so unattainable.

Keep a Designated Friend on Speed Dial

If you’re worried about surviving the holidays without losing it, Wald advises finding a “listening partner” for when times get tough. “I love to have a speed dial buddy—a friend I can text or call when I need to check in. You can feel alone even amid a lot of people, so it’s nice to have someone who knows your life, who knows your kids, who’s got your back, who you can text or call from the bathroom, from the car, or while you’re going for a walk. Just someone who can help you regroup and get grounded again,” she says. 

Surviving the Holidays Means Remembering It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect

Melissa Heckscher

The entire holiday season is a little like my 2019 holiday card. It took so long to get my three kids to sit still with corresponding “Happy. New. Year” signs that we attracted a small crowd of onlookers who chuckled at my Sisyphean efforts to corral the trio into a picture with at least three open pairs of eyelids (because after a while, that was my bare minimum). The moments leading up to the photo were filled with arguing, frustration, and the promise of candy, but all I see now is that perfect picture and those sweet smiles.  

Wald offers sage advice about surviving the holidays, “It’s the things that happen year after year that they will remember most, so if a particular holiday time winds up pear-shaped, don’t worry. It doesn’t need to be perfect; it’s the fact that it’s happening at all that matters.” So be gentle with yourself and allow yourself—and your kids—some grace.


All images via iStock unless otherwise noted 



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