Many parents with small children have mixed emotions about the holiday season. On the one hand, the excitement we felt in our own childhood emerges as we watch our children get ready for the festivities and to receive their gifts. On the other hand, we experience stress as a result of busy schedules and the responsibility of meeting our children’s expectations. The holidays can be more fun if we can reduce our stress while being more open to the joy we see in our children’s faces.

Stay in the Present

A key to having fun this holiday season is to keep your head in the game. Parents feel some stress over the holidays because they worry about the next thing to do….and the next thing after that, and so on. Many of us think “I can’t get all this done!!!!!” Maybe we can, and maybe we can’t-but one thing is certain, if we focus on the moment at hand, we can at least get that done. To stay in the present, look around you and notice where you are. Really see your children’s faces, the smiles and the brightness in their eyes. Look at your spouse or partner and remember the fondness of the first holiday season with them. Smell the air, see the lights, and think about that moment. If we keep our head in the “now” game, we’ll find it hard to worry about future.

Stop saying No

Children are usually interested in each thing in their “here and now.” That’s how they think. They see the advertisements on TV or in the catalogs that come in the mail, and in that moment they want them. In our house, I hear “Daddy, can I have…..” every single night. I know if I want to disappoint my children, I can so something like “No, you can’t have everything you want.” But, instead of teaching them to wait, the “NO” message will just make them feel unheard and uncared about. Parents can use an alternative that focuses on waiting: “Maybe, we’ll have to see. I look into it tomorrow.” The statement communicates that we care about what our children said, but doesn’t give them a false promise. Many parents have adopted the Elf on the Shelf (, and children tell the elf what they want for the holidays. Most of the time, life comes along and teaches children that they can’t have everything. When little ones don’t something they want,  parents can help them understand ideas like limited resources and patiently waiting….and the lesson will make more sense to children at that time, rather than saying “No” during a commercial on Qubo. (

Choices, not Distractions

We as parents feel the pressures of the holidays, the demands that children place on us sometime feel like the last straw. Many of us try distracting children-we try to get them to pay attention to something else other than us. We just want a moment’s peace. But when the moment is over, we really would like another quiet moment (but don’t get it). Distraction is a very short-term strategy, like snacking on empty calories: We feel satisfied for a second, but become hungry in a few minutes. Longer breaks from the demands of the holidays develop if we substitute choices for distractions. The choices strategy employs interesting activities children can pick from.  If you watch your kids play, for a day or two, you will see what they spend lots of time on. The more time they spend, the more interesting they find something.  By creating a set of engaging choices, children become more invested and interested in the choices they make. Parents find more peaceful breaks when they offer several interesting options, and the children pick from options. When the children tire of one thing, parents can return to the options and offer another set of choices. The strategy gives parents longer periods of peace and quiet during the busy holiday times.

Be Infected by the Joy

Children have an almost never ending well of joy. They can bounce back from disappointment quickly, and work hard to be happy again. As adults, we tend to notice their joy, rather than feel it. Try this exercise: Take your children and tickle them the way you did when they were very little. Listen to the giggles and belly laughs and tune everything else out. See if you can find yourself wanting to laugh and grin yourself. If you do, you’ve been infected with your children’s joy virus. During the holidays, use the skill of focusing just on their big smiles whenever you feel stress closing in. Every day, take 15 minutes to play a simple game or read together a holiday story. Soon you will find that your stress lessens as the joy replaces it.

Plan it, then Do it

Stress partly comes from focusing on the big list of holiday “to dos,” instead of focusing on the individual “to do” itself.  If we shift our attention from the list to each thing on the list, we focus on manageable projects: we can make a plan and get things done. Many of us long for the Hallmark warm and fuzzies, and resist the tasks and projects of the adult holiday experience. We want to deny the harsher reality of parenting during the holidays, but denial never works for very long, and often makes problems worse. Instead of denial, take time to make a plan, list out what needs done, and then do one or two of them every day. Of course, we know that making a plan is easy-but execution of the plan reduces your stress. Every day, consult your plan and spend time getting some of it done……and watch the stress fade.

Final Thoughts

The holidays are inevitable every year. No matter how tempting it is, when parents ignore the tasks of holiday parenting leads to less joy and more stress. The governor of Ohio recently said something like, “Get on the bus or it’ll run over you with the bus.” Mr. Kasich can be a bit direct, but he is nonetheless right. The holidays are like a bus, and parents can get on the bus and have some fun, or feel stress as the bus runs over us. My advice to all parents this year is this: Have fun and get on the holiday bus.


Kevin D. Arnold, PhD, ABPP