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Parenting Tips for the Holidays

More joy, less stress: keeping holiday stress in check with your kids. 

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 24, 2022
holiday stress woman

You know the drill: The "gimmes," the sugar meltdowns, the "are we there yets?" At this time of year, many kids reach a high pitch of excitement and sometimes invent surprising new behaviors that require your best holiday parenting skills.

"Parents should start with their own expectations," says Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychology professor at Rutgers University in News Brunswick, NJ, and author of Make Your Children Feel Special Everyday,. "Some parents want to be sure their children get everything they want so there will be no tears. This is an unrealistic goal. Parents, especially with younger kids, get lost in the hype."

Don't try to please everyone, Newman advises. Someone -- even an adult, like a parent, grandparent or in-law -- will be unhappy with something, big or small. But, as a rule, the children will not be -- and it's the little things that they will remember, like time spent playing a board game or teaching you to their video games. 

Give the Pleasure of Giving

"Children will model your behavior," Newman says. "If you bake for the homeless shelter (and they help) or if you visit people in the hospital, they will remember that. These patterns stick."

"I like cooking with kids," says Bunni Tobias, host of the syndicated radio show, Solutions for Simple Sanity, "At my house, each child has a specialty, one was King of Cookies; one was on top of the veggies." Over time, each household develops a list of favorite holiday cookies and treats -- these are repeated each year.

Many schools and nonprofit organizations have programs for kids to make gifts or join in charitable projects. 

Children can also help wrap presents or make them. "Kids have to see that everything doesn't come from a store," Newman says. Wrapping also creates a sense of excitement and is a good time to talk.

Making gifts is also a good way to give kids a deeper sense of the holidays. Going to the craft store, planning a project, and gathering around to make things is also a good time for parents to give kids extra attention.

Tobias recommends that children should be encouraged to make their own wish lists -- but to also describe why they want each item, to think a little. This way, parents can gently modify expectations before the fateful unwrapping.

Start Your Own Traditions

The holidays can be what you make of them. If you're not into the traditions handed down to you, start your own. 

Go to the Nutcracker, a lighting ceremony or just drive around to see house lighting

  • Build a snowman
  • Open an Advent card
  • Attend a faith-based gathering. 
  • Let kids' choose holiday music and parents can dance with them
  • Start a tradition of holiday meditation 
  • Bring out the ornaments, if you have a tree, and reminisce about each one

Some other suggestions:

  • Put the kids in charge of videotaping or picture taking. Let them interview everyone each year. Landscape photographer Franklin B. Way suggests starting with disposable cameras. Encourage several shots of each subject before offering advice. Send kids out to take pictures of objects of one color. It will give you some free time.
  • Be flexible -- if kids want a traditional candy cane and gingerbread man tree, or a pink artificial tree, consider going with their preferences.
  • As a family, share your hopes for the coming year. Encourage your kids to do the same.

Coping With Divorce

If yourfamily has been touched by divorce, death, or some major change this year, carefully consider how you're going to handle the holidays. Insisting on making it just like it used to be might not work.  "Even if it only means having dinner at a different time, try to differentiate between the past and now," Newman says." 

Marilyn Coleman, PhD, professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, suggests divorced parents create a separate holiday just for the family, one that is neither Christmas or Hanukkah, so kids won't feel guilty for spending time with one parent and not the other. And set up the visitation schedule in advance, no surprises. Try not to overschedule kids, help  your child shop for your ex, and be positive about the other parent. And don't compete for the affections of the child by breaking the bank with a "big gift."

Keep Routines as Best You Can

Keep the kids' bedtimes in place, even if relatives plead, "Let them stay up, it's the holiday." Newman says. People of all ages need sleep, she says, "No one wants to deal with sleep-deprived kids. You do them a disservice if you allow them to stay up."

Kids also should not be allowed to OD on sugar and snack food. "Ask the grandparents to go easy," Newman says.

Most of all, be inclusive -- if kids are included in an event, introduce them, coach them to use proper manners, and if they need you off alone for a few minutes, make the time.

There's a payoff. If the kids are less stressed, you will be, too. That's the best present of all.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Susan Newman, PhD, social psychology professor, Rutgers University, News Brunswick, N.J.; author, Make Your Children Feel Special Everyday. Bunni Tobias, host, syndicated radio show, Solutions for Simple Sanity. Marilyn Coleman, PhD, professor, human development and family studies, University of Missouri-Columbia. Mary Jo McCurley, McCurley, Orsinger, McCurley & Nelson, Dallas.

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