Happy Holidays?

It’s been a crazy few years and the holidays can really pile on the stress. Squeeze out the most joy by focusing on what really matters, keeping expectations reasonable and starting new traditions.
BY CORTNEY FRIES | First printed in the November/December 2022 Issue

From the time we start talking turkey until we bid 2022 adieu, it can be a hectic couple of months that are supposed to be the most magical time of the year.

Whether you like doing all the yam things or you’d rather peace out with some pie, we’re here to help you cultivate the most joy amidst the season. Experts and parents share their best tips for keeping holidays and mindsets calm and bright despite the chaos.

Keep expectations in check

Scrolling past next-level charcuterie boards on social media (not to mention the new trending butter boards) and seeing endless ads for toys and gifts, parents and kids are bombarded with images of picture-perfect celebrations.

Dr. Bethany Cook, licensed clinical psychologist and Chicago mom of two, suggests limiting your intake as it unconsciously impacts how you feel about the holiday season.

“There’s so much pressure for those magic moments,” she says. “Don’t force it.” Taking the most choreographed family photos doesn’t necessarily correlate to the warmest memories. And if the turkey burns, don’t let it turn into a nightmare.

Dr. John Hughes, psychotherapist and founder of the Chicago Center for Relational Health, suggests allowing the reality exist that we can’t ensure the holidays will always be joyful. “You can set intentions to focus on thankfulness, togetherness, connection and peace,” he says. “But a good part of parenting is allowing for a whole range of emotional experiences, both for you and your family.”

While joy can be a big part of the holiday season, it can’t be guaranteed.

Reframe stress to cultivate joy

Although the rush of buying gifts, attending parties and planning travel all around the same time can be anxiety-inducing, remember these are for festive celebrations. Dr. Asha Shajahan says reframing our minds around the idea of joy as opposed to stress can completely change the vibe.

While some of us might get overwhelmed trying to find the ideal gift for everyone on our lists and decking our halls with holiday décor, Shajahan encourages embracing imperfection. “The gift doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s the love behind it,” she says. “The party doesn’t have to be flawless, it’s the gathering of loved ones that makes it so special.”

When we welcome the chaos, the joy comes.

Make new traditions that work for you

Family traditions are wonderful, but you can take an updated spin on them. It’s been a tough few years, so do what’s best for your crew. “You don’t have to do all the things you used to do, like dress up and make all the food,” says Dr. Riana Anderson, assistant professor at the University of Michigan, who is on leave as a Stanford Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences. “Make it a pajama year and order delivery service.” Change traditions and initiate new ones. Simple things, such as reading the same book the night before the holiday or baking pies together, can be the most memorable.

Cook encourages people to add a new holiday tradition or keep one they created during COVID. She and her family incorporated a piñata into their Christmas celebration. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money,” she says. “But it reminds us that we survived COVID.”

Put gratitude on center stage

Experts suggest keeping a gratitude jar to help your family reflect and appreciate what you do have. “Write things you are thankful for, such as things other family members have done, which you might not normally talk about, then read them together,” Cook says. This helps spread warm feelings of appreciation and increases joy. “Gratitude focuses on a positive mindset and, when practiced regularly, can block negative emotions,” Shajahan says.

Prevent grandparents from over-giving

Grandparents may want to spoil their grandchildren with piles of endless presents. But the brightly colored, noisy clutter can stress parents out and contradict the values they are trying to impart on their children. Plus, research shows that the availability of fewer toys encourages kids to play more creatively because they focus and become more imaginative with what they have.

How do you prevent grandparents from going overboard? Anderson suggests providing a list of gifts you are interested in as a family. Say, “Feel free to pick one, so we don’t all give the same thing.” Parameters early on can help grandparents help you.

Shajahan suggests asking family members to contribute to a child’s college fund or to purchase an experience, such as music or sports lessons or an outing together. “This will avoid numerous gifts under the tree but still allow grandparents to see the joy of the gift year-round.”

Christine Zwolinski, who shares her family fun on Instagram @thechicagogoodlife, says her family has been following the three gift rule — something they want, something they need and something to read. “The categories help us with budgeting,” she says. “Plus, it encourages the kids to prioritize what they really want.”

Zwolinski’s family is big into experience gifts because they create special memories. “Last year’s gift to our grandmas was having a mother-daughter Teddy Bear Tea Time at Hotel Zachary,” she says. “We all had so much fun and my daughter still talks about it.”

Prepare for stress triggers

“Remember that stress is a normal, perhaps unavoidable, part of the holidays and family gatherings,” Hughes saysw.

Shajahan recommends verbally naming your stress triggers and preparing solutions for dealing with them. For example, if a certain family member pushes your buttons, how will you handle your reaction? What will you do to calm yourself?

“Set boundaries and stick to them,” Zwolinski says. Explain ahead of time what your limits are. Zwolinski says things like, “Hey, can’t wait to see you all over the holidays. I’ve been really stressed/worried about               and would love to make it an off-limits topic.”

It’s not easy to communicate boundaries to extended family members and friends. But Cook encourages parents to stand up for things they feel strongly about, such as having your children wake up in their own home on the holiday if that’s important to you.

Address loneliness

According to a 2021 Harvard study, 61% of young adults and 51% of mothers with young children feel “serious loneliness.” Whether there’s physical distance between you and your family or your relationships aren’t quite as close as you hope, the holidays can usher in waves of loneliness.

“One of the biggest unspoken challenges of the holiday season is that it can be incredibly lonely,” Hughes says. The most important thing is to let those you love know how you feel. While it might seem awkward, ask if you can make plans. If you’re unable to see friends and family in-person, leverage technology such as Zoom, FaceTime and WhatsApp.

It works both ways. If you know someone who is likely to feel lonely, be proactive and invite them to be included, even if it’s to share a meal over Zoom. “You can be in the room with others and still feel lonely,” Cook says. Create your own experiences on your own terms and invite your chosen family.

“Turn something small into a “party,” even if it’s just you and someone else,” Zwolinski says. “Dress up, make a fancy dinner at home, open gifts together via FaceTime, do something that makes you happy! Although those lonely feelings might not totally disappear, you are creating new holidays memories in a different way, which might help.”

If you don’t feel comfortable telling those you know how you feel, you can reach out to the Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to 741741 and a Crisis Counselor will respond 24/7.

Achieve a “helping high”

“People who volunteer experience a helping high, which benefits them, too,” Cook says. Shovel walkways, take cookies to neighbors or write letters to the military or children in cancer units. “Remember the reason for the season,” Anderson says. Embrace the spirit of giving, whether it’s volunteering at soup kitchens or giving gifts to families in need.

Shajahan recommends delivering meals to the homeless or visiting nursing homes. “Spend time with people who will be over-joyed to have your company,” she says. If you don’t feel like dealing with people, Cook says pets can make you feel appreciated without all the complications of humans. Volunteer at a pet shelter or perhaps adopt your own furry friend.

Select causes that are important to your family. Cook and her partner provide a budget that their children can divvy up to different charities. The kids decide how much goes to therapy dogs, helping the blind or the LGBTQ community, for example.

Reflect on good times and bad

“One reason memories become special is the stories that are talked about afterwards,” Cook says. Relive festive moments later by discussing them at dinner, in the car or before bed.

Not only does Shajahan recommend reflecting on all the blessings you have received over the year, but also the difficult times. “Focus on how you grew from the tough moments and appreciate those who were there for you during them,” she says. Practicing compassion and empathy for others is also a big endorphin booster.

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