The holiday season is a time for good cheer and merriment! Or is it? For many, the mention of Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year’s brings as many winces as it does smiles. The fact is, the holiday season can be as much of a burden as it is a celebration; and the additional responsibilities can put unwelcome stress on a family’s already time-starved schedule. Let’s make this year different! We cannot promise a stress-free holiday season, but with these tips, we can help you minimize stress as much as possible.

1. Make Holiday Plans Early.

For most families, each holiday season is accompanied by an abundance of decisions and negotiations that need to be made. These include (but are in no way limited to):

  • Who’s exchanging gifts this year?
  • Who’s traveling, and when?
  • Who’s sleeping on the foldout couch—and for how long?
  • Who’s cooking dinner?
  • Who’s paying for dinner?

It’s important for families to talk through as many of these major holiday plans early, to ensure that everyone has the same expectations. Remember, typically it is not the planning itself that’s stressful; it’s the lack of planning, or the last minute planning that makes life so hectic.

2. Keep Things Simple.

It’s easy to get caught up in the pomp and circumstance of the season. However, expecting the holidays to be J-Crew-catalog-perfect is a surefire way to turn holiday joy into yuletide angst. In lieu of extravagance, keep things simple and focus on the core of what’s important to you during the holidays: like getting some hard earned rest and relaxation, enjoying a cold eggnog, and then a hot cider, and spending time with those you love.

3. Set a Budget.

Even if you are blessed with financial freedom or wealth, the huge expenses of the holiday season can feel overwhelming and burdensome. If you are like most of society, and you are operating with a budget, do not make the holidays an exception. Note how much money you have spent in recent years and use this as a rubric.

Can you cut back on spending by removing a few nonessentials?

These are questions you’ll now be able to answer without pulling your hair. There are many ways to handle the buying and giving of gifts without exerting a huge budget. One such way is to make the holiday about the kids, opting to spend more on them than anyone else. This works in most cases because spouses and siblings can exchange one or two gifts amongst each other and enjoy watching the children’s’ excitement over their gifts. The key is to talk about this ahead of time with the family. Let your loved ones know that you want to keep the budget small by limiting the money spent on each person. This will prevent awkward gift exchanges in the weeks ahead.

The age old question of how much is the right amount to spend will depend on every family and every financial situation.

How much should you spend on your kids?
How much should you spend on your parents?

Be open and honest about this ahead of time, with both your significant other and your family. For a family with one child, spending $100 per child might be reasonable. For a family with five children, this may be ridiculous. Evaluate your financial situation reasonably and with a clear head, before the emotions of the season take hold.

4. Avoid the Crowds (and Lines).

For some people, being in long lines on Black Friday, fighting with crowds, and searching for parking spots, are all just part of their holiday season. But for most, these activities cause undue stress and frustration. During the holiday season, almost all retail locations are madhouses on the weekends. If at all possible, go during the week. Or, even better, don’t go at all! Most items can be bought online, with even better prices than in physical stores.

5. Drop the Gift Guilt.

So your 11 year old casually mentions that she wants the hottest, newest, most expensive toy on the market this year? Is it now your solemn parental duty to make sure she has it? Or will she even remember it on Christmas morning?

Many Christmas movies employ the theme of the search for the perfect holiday gift. Remember “Jingle All The Way?” Things can even get brutal! Let this go entirely. It may sound trite, but it is true from counselors around the country; give the gift of time to your children. The healthiest adults are not those that had every toy they ever wished for, but rather, are those that had their parents love and attention.

6. Outsource holiday meals.

For Pittsburgh residents, local company “A Fare to Remember at Home” is redefining what it means to cook a holiday feast. Says Owner Jeanne Lewis, “We’ll provide everything but the turkey.” This includes mashed potatoes (last year they mashed over 400 pounds), sweet potatoes (with and without nuts), stuffing (with and without meat), green beans, homemade cranberry sauce, gravy…you name it and they’re cooking it. The best part, nobody needs to know it didn’t come from your oven. Says Lewis, “You can even bring in your own dishes–and we’ll fill them!” Check into options like this in your town! This is a growing trend and you may have something similar where you live.

7. Keep Healthy Boundaries

Friends and family have a special way of pushing us to the breaking point. This holiday season, it’s important to find a balance between being generous and hospitable, and also standing firm when requests and demands are so burdensome that they will likely ruin your experience.

For example, don’t succumb to the pressure of having friends or family stay at your house if you don’t enjoy hosting overnight guests. If you do succumb, you won’t have a good time, and your guests will be likely to feel unwelcome. Also, make sure that your limits are clearly known. Believe it or not, most friends and family don’t mean to overextend your limits (or their welcome), they just need to be aware of clear boundaries.

8. Do Less

Parties. Christmas specials. Church activities. Charities. Seeing the lights. Getting downtown; there’s no shortage of things going on during the holiday season. Trying to be a part of every event is like trying to see every single exhibit at the Smithsonian. You might be able to do it, but after a certain point you’ll stop enjoying it. Doing less means that you might hang fewer lights, and sing fewer carols. You’ll miss out on some experiences, but you’ll keep your sanity; and you’ll enjoy the events you participate in even more.

9. Maintain Healthy Habits.

During the holiday season, it is so easy to drink too much, eat too much, and exercise too little. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying holiday snacks in moderation, but you might need to change your definition of treating yourself altogether. It’s not about indulging, it’s about doing something that not only makes you feel great, but also will help improve your mental clarity and give you a jumpstart on any wellness-based New Year’s resolutions.

We live in a country where we are blessed with very little shortages of food. If you don’t eat seven cookies at the office holiday party, don’t worry; there will be more at the next event. There is no need to enjoy every part of every meal or dessert. Overeating will just make you less able to enjoy yourself in the long run. For many people, being active helps bring calm and ease stress. When the holidays get so busy, exercise is often the first thing to go. Instead, try to think of exercise as the one gift that you give to yourself every day. It is a time to refocus, and to do something positive for you.

10. Remember the Little Ones.

While it is easy to shower children with gifts, it is less easy to pay attention to them and check in with them during the many family and social gatherings during the season. Provide your child a “time in.” This is the time to check in with them and get away from the hustle and bustle of the day. This is so important for any child but particularly for those that may get overwhelmed easily.

If you have a child that has been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Asperger’s, Autism, and Anxiety, being proactive about this is greatly beneficial. Children with these diagnoses get overstimulated on a regular day, so on days when there are extra people running around, their room is getting invaded, or when there is simply a change in their routine, they can feel more stress than most adults. Gently pull your child aside every hour (or every 30 minutes or less for children with diagnoses stated above), find a quiet room, and just spend a few minutes talking with them.

This gives them a chance to quiet their brain for a few minutes, and they get the added bonus of spending 1:1 time with their parent. If need be, walk them through a guided imagery or breathing exercise to calm them down. You may be surprised at how helpful this is for you as well! Also, finding your child a place where they can go on their own if they get overwhelmed will be helpful as well, even if it is only the bathroom for a few minutes. A few minutes of quiet can help make the whole day calmer.

11. Lower your Expectations for “Family”

Is every second with your extended and immediate family pure joy? We assume not. Many people have family dynamics that make them feel uncomfortable, at the very least. I’m trying to state that delicately, but I am willing to bet many of you would fill in that blank using a word with a little more fervor behind it. First, know you are not the only one. I hear so many people judge themselves for not having healthier relationships with their families. But all families have issues to some degree. You are putting a group of people together with different personalities, expectations, traditions and often beliefs. And then there’s the added pressure of “We must all get along and love each other unconditionally because we are family.”

I obviously don’t know your specific family situation, but if holidays are a positive experience for you, then give your family big hugs and count your blessings. For those that have difficulty with the “one big happy family” concept, however, remember that you always have a choice whether to engage in unpleasant interactions. When you are feeling too much negative energy, step outside to get some fresh air, call a good friend, take the kids for a walk, and don’t feel guilty. Remember to concentrate on the things you can control and let go of the things you can’t. You cannot control the family to which you were born.

And It’s Over So Quickly

The holidays come around quickly each year. Sometimes, particularly when they are incredibly stressful, it feels like we were just packing up the decorations, and then it is time to start all over again. However, if you employ even some of these tips, you can be on your way to creating a holiday season that you actually enjoy. Take the time to make a survival strategy ahead of time. An ounce of planning can prevent a mountain of stress. Take control of your sanity, peace, and joy this holiday season.