By: Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Are the holidays the “most magical time of the year?” Maybe, but they can also be the most stressful. In fact, a recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that 41% of U.S. adults experience increased stress levels around the holidays, while 52% find their stress levels remain the same, and only 7% feel less stressed this time of year. A whopping 43% of American adults acknowledge that the stress that accompanies the holidays compromises their ability to enjoy them (and that number includes only the people willing to admit it!).
As an adult reading this, you may be thinking this information comes as no surprise and you’re all too aware of the stress that comes with the holidays. What you may not realize as fully is that this time of year can be stressful for children as well. While the holidays can bring excitement and fun, they can also present challenges, particularly for our kids and teens who struggle with underlying mental health issues (such as anxiety or depression) or neurodevelopmental conditions (such as Autism, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or Sensory Processing Disorder). For the next few weeks, many of us will be attempting to navigate our own holiday-related stress and manage the stress our children may feel and express in a variety of ways. So, if you’re feeling less overwhelmed with excitement and joy and instead simply overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Here are some strategies for making the holidays work for you:
Notice and recognize the impact of expectations. It all starts here. From Hallmark movies to the pictures posted by mom-fluencers on Instagram, we are bombarded with unrealistic images of what the holidays “should” look like. Social media is particularly insidious, as it tends to contribute to a sense that the everyday, real people around us (not just those celebrities in magazines) are living what we see reflected in their carefully edited and curated photos. It’s important to remind ourselves that these images don’t reflect the reality of life and that we don’t see 99% of what happens in the daily lives of those we follow on social media. We may see the images of perfectly decorated Christmas cookies but not the kitchen counters covered in flour, eggs, and frosting (or the parent yelling) in the background. We click on the beautiful photo of three kids all smiling at the camera from Santa’s lap but don’t see the 25 outtakes featuring those same children in tears, sticking out their tongues, or bolting out of the frame. Realizing this and taking a step back is key for ourselves and our children, who may also need explicit information about what they can expect (for instance, regarding the number of and type of gifts they will get based on your family’s budget versus what they envision).
Realize we also all harbor implicit ideas about what the holidays “should” look like based on our experiences growing up and the way our families did things, which we take for granted. If you’re in a relationship, you may have encountered your own hidden expectations if they ever come into conflict with those of your significant other. Even if you celebrate the same holiday(s), you may do so in very different ways. Some of you may be familiar with conversations, such as, “What do you mean your family decorates the tree Christmas Eve? Christmas trees go up as soon as we put our jack-o-lanterns in the compost on November 1st!” If you and your partner celebrate different holidays or your kids split their time between your home and that of another parent, all of this becomes much more complicated. So, talk about it openly and together. As a family, re-evaluate your expectations and traditions, and start with a blank slate. Sit down together, make your expectations explicit, then assess them together.
Ask some questions, such as:
- What does each family member, kids included, envision the holidays will look like? This might be general and abstract (maybe Mom wants to ensure there’s downtime for rest and relaxation) or concrete (maybe the kids want to go ice skating over winter break, and Dad wants to make sure the family goes to midnight mass on Christmas Eve). How will you make this work both logistically and in terms of balancing different needs?
- What traditions do you automatically take part in, and do they work for your family at this particular moment in time? Although traditions are important and meaningful, blind and rigid adherence to rituals and routines that don’t work for us don’t benefit anyone. We often take part in traditions without questioning whether they add to our lives or why we started doing them in the first place.
Once you’ve had these discussions, consider that you don’t have to “do” the holidays the same way ever single year. There’s no rule that says every holiday season has to look the same. Do you always go take photos with Santa at the mall even though your kids inevitably resist the idea, become anxious and overwhelmed, and you end up frustrated? Open up to the possibility of forgoing that tradition even if it’s just for the time being. Do you make an elaborate holiday dinner each year but aren’t up to it this year? Consider finding an alternative for now that takes the stress off of you and still aligns with your priorities. If what’s important to you is enjoying a meal with your family, maybe you can still do that while letting go of the need to do it all yourself.
Modify your expectations and make accommodations for your children given their unique personalities and potential challenges. This might mean forgoing busy and crowded events, such as parties, for children and teens who struggle with anxiety in social settings or become easily overwhelmed by sensory input. Or maybe you still attend, but you have a pre-established plan for leaving by a certain time and/or managing distress that may arise. These days, many public spaces that host events (e.g., museums, theaters) hold modified sensory-friendly versions of events at specified times. For many children, building in predictable routines, and previewing special plans or changes to their usual schedules can be very helpful. For kids or adolescents with significant “picky” eating or Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), you might consider hosting a holiday dinner at your house so you have control over the menu or bringing food you know your child will eat if you’re visiting others. Many kids with ADHD will need movement breaks, so think ahead about how you’ll work those in depending on your plans. It helps to think ahead and have a flexible plan for meeting your kids’ needs in different scenarios.
Now for the twist. Remember that APA study I quoted at the start of this blog? Well, even though so many people reported significant stress, it also found that 69% of adults feel the stress of the holidays is “worth it,” and many endorse positive outcomes related to the holidays, including an increased sense of togetherness. No matter what or how you celebrate, the holidays can be a wonderful and meaningful time of the year, and the odds of finding joy, connection, and calm will be higher if you take a step back and figure out how to make the holidays fit into your life and work for your family.
About the Author
Maggie Rodriguez, Psy.D., provides comprehensive evaluation services for children, adolescents, and young adults with often complex presentations. She particularly enjoys working with individuals who have concerns about attention and executive functioning, language-based learning disorders, and those with overlapping cognitive and social/emotional difficulties.
Prior to joining NESCA, Dr. Rodriguez worked in private practice, where she completed assessments with high-functioning students presenting with complex cognitive profiles whose areas of weakness may have gone previously undiagnosed. Dr. Rodriguez’s experience also includes pre- and post-doctoral training in the Learning Disability Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Neurodevelopmental Center at MassGeneral for Children/North Shore Medical Center. Dr. Rodriguez has spent significant time working with students in academic settings, including k-12 public and charter school systems and private academic programs, such as the Threshold Program at Lesley University.
Dr. Rodriguez earned her Psy.D. from William James College in 2012, where her coursework and practicum training focused on clinical work with children and adolescents and on assessment. Her doctoral thesis centered on cultural issues related to evaluation.
Dr. Rodriguez lives north of Boston with her husband and three young children. She enjoys spending time outdoors hiking and bike riding with her family, practicing yoga, and reading.
To book a consultation with Dr. Rodriguez or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.
NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Plainville, and Hingham, Massachusetts; Londonderry, New Hampshire; and the greater Burlington, Vermont region, serving clients from infancy through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.