Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

Confession: I can’t listen to people who talk about “stress-free” holidays. I don’t think that they are connected to reality. Maybe it’s just me, but there is something about the holidays that put my dreams about what it means to be a “good parent” on a collision course with real life – and they always make contact. Sometimes it is messier than others. They are most certainly not stress-free. My goal now is to keep the chaos down to a dull roar and to admit that my disappointment (when my unrealistic expectations aren’t met) is making things worse, not better. So what are some strategies to have more fun and less frenzy?

Stress and the brain. There is more and more science about the impact of stress on your brain. For example we now know that our abilities to self-regulate and maintain self-control wear out as we get tired, hungry, or more stressed. (Marketing experts put this to good use. You will impulse buy more if you are over stimulated or tired while shopping.)

Reboot your stress meters. Expect your normally charming children to “lose it” even when they “know better” during the holidays. Help them plan for islands of quiet or peace in the day so they can re-boot their stress meters. Join them or plan some of your own. Quiet time and play are two good ways to start over.

Less is more. Fewer things and fewer activities. When we ask parents how they knew they were loved as children what was important was how the adults were being (listened, played, hugged) instead of the activities or things. Around the holidays adults can be busy being busy with lists and “to dos” and we forget that the gift of our presence is the best of all.

Stay with routines. Routines (including chores) are the structures that give a rhythm, familiarity and safety to a child’s day. If you are travelling and the rhythm is different, think about what kinds of things can be put in place so that you and your children know what the patterns will be. It might be an illustrated calendar of who and when you are visiting or a simple sit down breakfast each morning that brings you together. Have the children help figure this out.

QTIP (Quit Taking It Personally). When your child blows out or the dinner doesn’t turn out as well as you wanted or Uncle Jeremy picks a fight during dessert, find the place in you that can notice your disappointment without blaming yourself. See if you can gently step into the jungle of that disappointment with some curiosity. “This didn’t go according to plan, I wonder what we will learn from this?” Some of the most amazing (and hilarious) family stories come from events that were unpleasant surprises to begin with.

Remember what you really want. It isn’t really the picture perfect meal or having everyone happy. We settle for happiness – but what we really want is connection. It is those moments of sharing, of hugs, of loving looks, of gratitude and generosity toward others that is what the season is really about.

May you have a holiday of connection, love and gratitude, even if it isn’t “stress – free.”

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