Resources / For families

It’s ok if the holidays aren’t “magical” this year

two moms and two kids sitting on couch
Anna Gottlieb
Anna Gottlieb, LICSW

Oct 5, 2023

Holiday stress can come from so many different places: Trying to recreate treasured holiday memories from your childhood? Or, trying to avoid holiday disappointments you felt as a kid? Seeing families gathered around Pinterest-worthy dinner tables on TV? Inundated on every social media platform by expensive toy ads? Holidays get idealized in a way that can leave everyone feeling frayed and anxious about measuring up.

So, let’s explore a few key ways to set your family up for the kind of holiday you all really care about this year. (Hint: It’s probably not about the festive tablecloth you saw in the ad.)

Get clear on what matters (and what doesn’t).

Ever buy your young child the latest and greatest toy only to turn around and find it discarded in a pile? Or surprise your teen with tickets to an exciting event only to notice that it introduces more stress than joy? (As they’re sitting in the back of the car watching TikTok and keeping to themselves you might think to yourself, “Wait...wasn’t this supposed to be fun?”) While you plan for the holidays, pause often and ask yourself if the logistical gymnastics are leading to something meaningful for you and your family — if you find the effort isn’t worthwhile, you can always switch to something more simple.

Focus on the feeling.

Instead of focusing on everything you want to do during the season, focus on how you want to feel. Do you want to feel calm? A sense of wonder? Content? Excited? Peaceful? Grateful? Cozy? Connected? Loved?

Choose a few feelings that are most important to you. From there, think about how your holiday plans can be more closely aligned with those feelings — it might mean that you focus on a few important moments instead of trying to do it all. (Want to feel calm? You might not want to drag the whole family to three holiday parties in one weekend.)

Open the conversation.

Loop your child in on this, too. You can ask them things like: What are some of your favorite holiday traditions? If you could only choose one special thing to do together for the holidays this year, what would it be? What are you most excited about? Is there anything you’re worried about? You might be surprised by their answers.

Notice the small stuff.

When you think back on past holidays, you might remember the little things: making wishes while lighting a candle, taking a snowy walk to look at holiday lights, your child singing a silly song with their cousin, or watching Elf for the fourth time on the couch. So, try to really let yourself savor those small but meaningful moments as they’re happening this holiday season.

Toss your epic to-do list.

If you’re running around stressed about getting everything done, no one wins. It’s better to have a simpler list of activities where you can feel connected and present than an over-the-top exciting roster of things to do that leaves you feeling frazzled and drained. Prioritize low-effort, free, easy activities that help you feel close to your kids. Read a holiday story, go for a walk, tell your kids a funny story. Your child won’t remember everything you did from the list, but they might remember you stressing over it. Crumple it up and enjoy yourselves.

Take care of your own needs.

Self-care looks different for everyone, so find what helps you feel replenished. It could be taking a short solo walk around the block, doing a yoga video on Youtube, texting a friend, or eating something delicious. Reach out to your people — you can lean on friends and family, a coach or therapist, or parenting support groups or hotlines if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Make space for your kid’s tough emotions.

As hard as it might be to hear, you can’t avoid disappointment completely. Your child might have a hard time this holiday, for reasons that are expected or totally surprising. If family finances don’t allow the types of holiday gifts your child was hoping for, that’s hard for everyone. Instead of trying to make it all better, sit with them and let them know that it’s okay to be sad, frustrated, disappointed, or whatever the tough feeling might be. You can say something like, “It’s okay to feel that way. You won’t feel this forever, but it feels hard right now. I’m here with you.”

And remember, it’s normal to experience higher highs and lower lows this time of year. One tough hour or day doesn’t mean the holidays are ruined — there are always opportunities to focus on moments of connection, joy, and fun you create together this holiday season.