Holiday Survival Guide for Parents: Slow Down, Breathe, Set Boundaries, Manage Expectations, Care for yourself, and ENJOY!
By: Amy Jeffers, MA
The holiday season is quickly approaching, bringing with it a barrage of festive events, lofty expectations, heightened emotions, and intense busyness for those families who celebrate throughout the late fall and winter months. This time of year has the capacity to be simultaneously exciting and exhausting, joyous and overwhelming, inspirational and intense; this is especially true for parents, who are expected to perform holiday miracles while managing their families and typical daily duties. As both a therapist who works with families and a parent myself, I am well-versed in the stress and pressure the next few months can bring – I’m in the trenches with you. That said…
What if it doesn’t have to be this way? What if this holiday season could look different than previous years, full of connection and moments of joy instead of chaos and constant motion? What if this year, we paused to soak in the precious time we have with our loved ones, slowed down and marveled at the world around us, and said no to the expectations and demands that overwhelm us so we can use our time more intentionally? What if we took time out to care for ourselves and connect with others? What would that holiday season look like for us and our families, for whom we are modeling these behaviors, if we met our days with mindfulness and gratitude instead of exhaustion and frustration?
If you think this sounds too perfect and idealistic to be true, trust me, I hear you; however, I’m asking you to consider that this shift towards connection, self-care, and relaxation might be much easier than it seems and can be achieved through the implementation of several small steps (which makes it more manageable and less overwhelming than asking you to make giant changes during an already stressful time). Below, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite tips to share with parents during the holiday season that I hope will help you and your family to slow down, relax, connect, and enjoy the beauty the upcoming celebrations have to offer. I invite you to peruse the following tips and see which resonate most for you!
Most of us spend the majority of our days rushing from one activity to the next, driven by appointments to be kept, events to be planned, and tasks to be checked off a never-ending to-do list. The holiday season is no different; if anything, the lives of most parents are even more hectic than normal during the holidays as seasonal obligations pile on top of our regular responsibilities. We want to slow down and enjoy ourselves but how can we do that with so many things on our plates? The answer: mindfulness! Mindfulness simply means remaining mentally aware, oriented, and present in the moment; when we practice mindfulness, we aren’t thinking of yesterday, or tomorrow, or the millions of things we should be doing. Mindfulness emphasizes the mind-body connection and invites us to connect with ourselves and the world around us, just as things are, with no judgment. And the best part about mindfulness is that it can be utilized anywhere, anytime, without any props or anyone noticing you are doing it!
There exist many mindfulness techniques but my favorite resource to recommend to parents is the Family Mindfulness Schedule worksheet, which is a free resource available here: https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/family-mindfulness-schedule. This handout not only describes several beneficial mindfulness techniques, but also provides examples of how to discuss and implement mindfulness skills with children. Try using one or more of these mindfulness techniques daily throughout the holiday season to become more present and aware instead of missing out on special moments due to running on mental autopilot!
Boundaries are one of the most important yet challenging things we address in therapy, particularly when it comes to setting healthy boundaries with family members. The existence of healthy and appropriate boundaries is essential for emotional wellness and fulfilling interpersonal relationships; however, many people struggle to set and uphold boundaries with their families, which becomes painfully obvious as holiday plans are made and more time is spent with our relatives. Family members may railroad us, bring up topics we’d rather not discuss, or attempt to guilt us into doing things we’d rather avoid, leaving us wishing we could just skip out of our commitments and potentially leading to increased interpersonal conflict.
To be truthful, it takes time and substantial effort to set and uphold healthy boundaries on a more permanent level, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to take the first steps this holiday season! The best place to start is by identifying what you are and are not willing to do and talk about with family during the holidays – these will be your boundaries. Next, create a plan of how you will communicate and enforce these boundaries with your family members, and identify how you will respond if a boundary is crossed or ignored; for example, it could mean verbally blocking a conversation you don’t want to have, leaving a situation with which you are not comfortable, or choosing not to put yourself in a position that is likely to lead to a boundary violation. Finally, identify and reach out to your social support network to increase your comfortability with setting and upholding boundaries – it’s much easier to do this difficult work if you feel like people you care about have your back!
Expectations abound during the holiday season, including exceptionally high and potentially unreachable expectations of ourselves, others, and the world around us. Perfect gifts must be brainstormed, purchased, and beautifully wrapped! Delicious meals must be created and enjoyed! The perfect words need to be said… the perfect photos need to be captured… the perfect memories need to be made. It’s challenging, exhausting, and quite frankly, irrational to expect ourselves, others, and life itself to be perfect, and it ultimately sets us up for failure, disappointment, guilt, shame, and frustration. Not exactly what we hope for during the holidays!
The best way to effectively manage unrealistic and irrational expectations once they’re identified is to challenge, challenge, challenge! Challenge the beliefs that you need to be perfect, the image you project to the world needs to be perfect, your celebrations need to be perfect. Challenge the expectation that others need to be perfect, show up the way you want, or comply with your expectations simply because they exist. Challenge the idea that anything less than perfection is a failure and that “good enough” is unacceptable. If you notice frustration, irritability, or resentment, evaluate your expectations, identify whether they’re rational, and if not, challenge and rework your expectation into something more realistic, attainable, and fair.
Self-care is essential to our wellness and our ability to show up for others; however, many people (especially parents) shy away from self-care as they view it as selfish. When parents prioritize life responsibilities, our own wellbeing often comes last; we do all of the things for all of the people but rarely stop to think about our own wants and needs. The major problem with this approach is that we create a dynamic where we give and give until we have nothing left, which not only prevents us from showing up the way we want to in relationships but negatively impacts our physical, emotional, and psychological health and functioning. Parenting without practicing self-care is like pouring yourself into everyone you love but never stopping to refill, only to realize too late that you’re running on empty and have nothing left to give.
The first step to implementing effective self-care is to evaluate where you’re currently thriving and struggling in terms of your physical, psychological, spiritual, interpersonal, and occupational functioning. Start by visiting https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/self-care-assessment to take a free Self-Care Assessment, which will help you figure out in which ways you’re doing a great job of caring for yourself and areas in which you could improve. Based on the results, identify a few areas of focus and take concrete steps to increase your self-care during the holiday season and beyond.
If you do nothing else this holiday season, try to take some time to stop and enjoy the small moments. Practice gratitude by utilizing a gratitude journal, talking with your children about being grateful, or pausing to reflect on life’s blessings. Put down the to-do list and play with your children, snuggle on the couch, reach out to a friend. Feel the chill in the air, hear the crunch of leaves and snow, savor the delicious treats that come along with celebrations. There are so many experiences and connections to enjoy if you allow yourself to slow down, increase your awareness, care for yourself, reach out to others in healthy ways, and manage your expectations appropriately. To learn more about any of these areas or to receive additional support, schedule a session with a qualified mental health professional who can help you navigate the holiday season and work towards these and many other goals, and to live the centered, meaningful, balanced, and enriching life you deserve!