Tips for Holiday Stressed Parents

November 16, 2016

Stressed out during the holiday season?

by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.

Parents want to make the holiday season a special time, but it’s hard to get into the spirit when you are stressed out by social pressures, painful memories, or financial worries. Here are some tips to help you find peace and joy during the holiday season.

1. Spend what you can afford…and stop worrying about it

Financial worries are a common holiday stressor, and parents may feel particularly pressured to overspend: They want to make their children happy.

But it’s a mistake to think our kids need expensive gifts to enjoy the holidays. Happy moods are contagious, and young children can be entertained by very simple toys and games—if the people around them are cheerful and encouraging.

Moreover, kids are perfectly capable of appreciating the social joys of the season. Babies and toddlers feel sympathy for others. They want to help, and even experience the “warm glow” of giving. In one study, toddlers expressed more happiness about giving gifts and sharing than they did about receiving gifts themselves.

So try to turn off those inner voices that tempt you to overspend – or make you feel bad about what you can’t afford. Getting stressed out or distracted by financial concerns will leave you less emotionally available for your kids, and it might even undermine the psychological rewards of parenting. Experiments indicate that just thinking about money can diminish the satisfaction we derive from spending time with our children.

2. Make time for inspirational activities

Psychologists recognize two types of happiness. One is based on self-gratification, like the pleasure we experience when we eat our favorite food. The other type concerns our desire to fulfill our potential, and is based on feelings of purpose, meaning, self-competence, personal growth, and connection with the people we respect and love.

We might find this second kind of happiness in a variety of ways – by exercising our special skills and talents; by caring for others; by working towards goals we truly value; by pursuing our intellectual interests and helping others learn.

But whether we’re coaching a children’s basketball game or reading a mind-expanding book, the result is the same: These activities make us feel that life is worth living, and they make us stronger, too. Recent research suggests that happiness has special health benefits, and may be particularly helpful for coping with the stressors we can’t escape.

Thus, a good recipe for holiday stress management is also a good recipe for making the holidays feel special and uplifting: Pursue activities that will inspire you and your family, connect you with the important people in your life, and motivate you to learn and grow. Does music feed your soul? Make time for it. Do family nature walks lift your spirits? Fit some in. Reevaluate your schedule, eliminating non-essential chores and replacing them with the experiences that provide you with meaningful happiness.

3. Change your brain chemistry with exercise, humor, and positive thinking

You’ve already heard that aerobic exercise is a stress buster. Immersing yourself in a pleasant form of exercise causes your body to release endorphins, natural feel-good hormones that block pain and boost your mood.

Exercise can also lower skyrocketing stress hormone levels, and clear your mind of negative thoughts. And it can be family-friendly, too: Most babies are delighted to watch – or participate – while their caregivers dance around on the carpet.

But exercise isn’t the only way to change your brain chemistry. Experiments show that telling jokes and watching humorous movies can lower your stress hormone levels, helping you recover faster from tense, irritating, or threatening experiences. Friendly social interactions – even those you observe among strangers – can also deactivate the brain’s stress response.

And one of the most powerful stress relief tools we’ve got is all in the mind. We can reverse stress hormone spikes — and maintain a sense of calm and self-control — by adopting a positive outlook.

This doesn’t mean you must try to pretend that bad things don’t happen. On the contrary, studies suggest that we can make ourselves feel better by writing about our worries, fears, and distressing memories. But the effect depends on how we think about our troubles.

Gwen Dewar received her Ph.D. in biological anthropology from University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she studied evolution, social learning, parenting, primatology, and psychology. A science writer, she founded the website, PARENTING SCIENCE in 2006, and popularizes research of interest to parents, educators, and students of human nature.

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