Parents are feeling the pressure this holiday season. 

Data from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at University of Michigan Health found one in five parents think their children have unrealistic expectations of the holiday, and one in four parents admit they themselves set overly idealistic expectations for the holidays. 

“It’s no surprise that the study found that a parent’s heightened stress level negatively impacts their child’s holiday experiences. Children are much like sponges, and they soak up their parents’ energy and attitudes. When parents are stressed, their children unconsciously absorb the stress-laden energy; as a result, their children’s enjoyment of the holiday season will naturally be diminished,” Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in California, told Theravive. 

The majority of parents in the poll say the holidays are a happy time, but one in six say their holiday stress levels are high. Mothers are experiencing stress that is nearly twice as high as fathers.

One in five of the parents surveyed think their stress levels during the holiday season may negatively impact their children and their enjoyment of the holidays.

“Although some stress during the holidays is natural, it is important for parents to engage in solid self-care to ensure that any stress is addressed mindfully. When children see their parents navigating stressful situations with mindful care, the children learn that stress does not need to be an overwhelming or destructive force. However, when parents allow stress to build up and create explosive or otherwise negative situations, their children may be negatively impacted in the present moment. As well, the observed behavior can surely shape the child’s attitudes and experiences in the future,” Manly said.

Almost a third of those surveyed say they are feeling stress due to extra holiday tasks and shopping and 22% are feeling stress due to making special holiday meals. 

Manly argues the pressure to make things perfect for the holidays can lead to high levels of stress. 

“Many people feel compelled to create a perfect holiday season. From giving the perfect gift to creating perfect decor and festivities, the pressure to perform is often heightened during the holidays. This pressure often creates an overwhelming amount of stress. When parents mindfully cut back on their expectations and demands, they naturally decrease their stress levels. Children will not remember whether or not a holiday gathering was perfect, but they will remember if their parents were stressed and angry, or calm and joyful,” she said.

“Parents can model good mental health strategies by being mindful as stresses arise. Parents can gently communicate that they are finding a situation stressful and talk in simple terms about how they are navigating the situation. For example, if a few unexpected extra guests are coming to a dinner party, the parent might say, “It’s going to be a bit of extra work with the additional guest coming, but if we work as a team to get things ready, everything will work out fine.” Although strategies such as this sound simplistic, they work wonders on a neurolinguistic level in setting the stage for a positive, enjoyable outcome. Another great tip for parents to embrace is the simple strategy of taking a personal time out, for a short walk, or some mindful breathing… when things feel a little too stressful or demanding. When parents model these simple strategies for their children, the children learn that stress is natural, but that it can be handled in positive ways.” 

14% say they are stressed about criticism from family members regarding holiday plans, while 23% report they are stressed over family gatherings.

Manly says it can be helpful to remember it’s a sensitive time for year, and sometimes it’s best to be the bigger person rather than engage in conflict.

“Family dynamics can certainly be challenging, especially during the holidays when unaddressed issues tend to surface. I often advise parents to mindfully take the highroad during holidays rather than to try to attempt to address decades old issues during this highly sensitive time of year. When we anticipate the dynamics that might arise, we do far better at responding to them rather than reacting to them in negative ways,” she says.

But most of all, she argues parents need to let go of unrealistic expectations of the holidays and focus on what really matters. 

“Remember that children are far more likely to enjoy the holidays when you spend quality time with them. Joyful activities, whether hiking in the snow or baking cookies together, is far more important than any perfect present or Instagram-worthy holiday meal.” 

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