It’s not just about the kids: 5 expert tips for parents on navigating holiday stress and sadness
For weeks now, we’ve all heard it over and over. Whether you’re walking into a store or a restaurant, or you’re listening to a TV commercial, there’s that voice cheerfully singing that familiar line: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
But what if it isn’t? Although we’re told that it’s the season to be jolly, many of us experience stress and sadness in December.
This time of year can remind us of those we’ve lost. It can bring expenses that pile on top of the financial stress we may already have. It can magnify all kinds of difficult situations, as we’re reminded of the ways our lives don’t match the picture-perfect image of holiday joy that we see all around us — in advertising, in popular culture and especially on social media.
Although each person’s situation is unique and there are no one-size-fits-all answers, Kidsburgh decided to reach out to a local mental health expert. We asked Kristen Walker, clinical director at the Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh, how Kidsburgh readers might support themselves emotionally through Hanukkah, Christmas and the new year.
Our question resonated with Walker: “A lot of times when there is that message — `It’s the most wonderful time of the year!’ — then there is also this extra level of stress or this expectation that you have to make it the most wonderful time of the year,” she says. “And that’s hard enough when you’re feeling OK, let alone when you’re not feeling OK.”
As soon as Thanksgiving arrives, many people have the same reaction, she says: “I just have to get through until January 1, and then hopefully it’ll be a little bit easier.”
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make things a bit easier, even during the height of the holidays.
Let yourself set limits. Many parents — especially women — get the constant message that they’re not allowed to set boundaries. It can be really valuable to give yourself permission to set those this year.
Walker encourages her clients to embrace “that sense of trusting and believing that you are deserving of setting the limits that you need.” Perhaps there is something you’ve cooked or baked during past holidays, or you’ve elaborately wrapped gifts, and this year you’re running out of energy to get that done. It’s totally fine to say, “I can’t do all of that this year” and reassure yourself that it’s alright.
“Even if it’s something you’ve done for 20 years,” Walker says, you can set limits on how much is possible this year. This is your holiday season too, and if you need sleep or a chance to stop and rest, claim that space.
Offer yourself kindness. We often have visions of how things should go during the holidays. Then before we know it, the holiday is arriving and there just aren’t enough resources or enough time to accomplish everything. When that happens, many of us are our own worst critics.
There’s a better path: “It’s that idea of putting the oxygen mask on yourself first and foremost,” Walker says. “There’s that sense of not beating yourself up because maybe the gifts are not wrapped to perfection or maybe you didn’t get Christmas cards out this year.”
This year, let the voice in your head be kinder and more patient.
Accept that sadness has no rules. At the holidays, we’re often reminded of loved ones we’ve lost — even if it’s been many years since we lost that person. “If it’s the first holiday season without a loved one or it’s the 12th holiday season without a loved one,” Walker says, “holidays, in general, can be grief triggers.”
So don’t require yourself to be “over” a difficult experience. And if you’re sad and aren’t sure why, don’t require yourself to have a clear idea of the reason.
“You may be great the rest of the year,” Walker says, but at holidays “we tend to notice who isn’t there, or how things have changed. And it’s OK to feel sad or to express those feelings. You don’t have to put on that happy face and kind of grin and bear your way through it. It’s OK to step back. It’s OK to grieve.”
Give yourself patience when the weather brings dark, cold days. In North America, our winter holidays come at the time when the days are darkest and the weather is cold and biting. We’re expecting dangerously cold temperatures in Pittsburgh in coming days. Many of us struggle with the lack of sunlight. If you do, give yourself some extra patience and keep in mind: Sunnier days are coming.
Take a moment to notice what you’ve done this year. Our winter holidays arrive as the year is ending, prompting many of us to look back and assess our circumstances.
“We tend to look at these events as time markers, and it does prompt reflection,” Walker says. But “a lot of times we focus on what we haven’t done. We don’t look at or celebrate what we have done.”
As you reflect on 2022, take a moment to notice some of the things you did this year. They might be small things that you didn’t even notice at the time. Perhaps you listened to and encouraged a friend. Perhaps you found the strength to endure a difficult situation. Whatever the details, take time to thank yourself for what you did, and encourage yourself about what you might do in 2023.
“It doesn’t mean somehow that you’re failing as a human because this isn’t the happiest time of the year,” Walker says. “This is really hard for a lot of people.”