Welcome to our Q&A with the experts. For December, the topic is managing the stress that is as much a part of the holiday season as anything else. Pauline Wallin, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Camp Hill, Pa., and author of “Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior.” She has been quoted in major magazines and newspapers, and is a columnist for Body & Mind magazine. You can read more about her at her website and more of her advice on various family issues here.
We asked Dr. Wallin for advice on coping with the worry many families face this time of year, whether it’s from unemployment, financial concerns, relationships and other anxiety-filled issues. In other words, will the holidays be happy? Wallin believes there are misconceptions about making this time of year great and, sometimes, parents “worry about stuff that ultimately doesn’t matter.”
Following are some things Wallin says you really DON’T have to worry about:
Trying to make everything perfect. Are you the kind of parent who believes that everything must look just so… that everyone must get the perfect gift (wrapped perfectly, of course)… that your dinner table must look like that in a magazine?
This might get you the award for the best attention to detail, but it’s a lot of work and not necessarily all that important to your family and friends.
Stress-busting tip – Vow NOT to aim for perfection. Decide in advance what’s good enough. Good enough does not necessarily imply inferior. It simply means the point at which everyone appreciates what you’ve done and enjoys it.
Concern about disappointing your kids. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to buy your children everything they want for the holidays? Actually, no. Kids who get everything they want are ill-prepared to deal with disappointment in life.
Besides, gifts are not as important as you might think. Do you remember every gift that you got last year? Kids have an even shorter memory. Disappointments about gifts are not traumatic. In my 35 years as a psychologist, I’ve heard thousands of complaints from adults about their parents. But not one has ever said, “I’ll never forgive them for not buying me that super-duper toy for Christmas.”
Stress-busting tip — Of course you want to buy gifts your kids will enjoy. But if you cannot afford that ultimate toy of the season, don’t feel guilty. Have a budget and stick to it. It doesn’t make you a bad parent.
Cramming in too many holiday activities. There’s so much to do around the holidays. But must you do it all? “I want my kids to have the best holiday ever!” you might be thinking.
Unless your children keep a checklist of how many things you do or don’t do during the holidays, you’re the only one who’s keeping score. One thing is for sure – if you run yourself ragged, you’ll be tired, crabby and not much fun to be around.
Stress-busting tip — Decide what tasks and activities you won’t do this year, and cross them off your list. You’ll be amazed at how liberating this can feel. Sometimes just deciding to not bake cookies, or to not visit all your relatives and childhood friends within a two-day period, is all you need to have a little “breathing room” and actually enjoy the holidays.
Conflict with your ex during the holidays. Even with a detailed visitation legal document, holidays don’t always go smoothly for children of divorced parents. This is not the time to argue with or complain about your ex because it will only make you more angry. It may also raise your kids’ anxiety levels.
Stress-busting tip — Behave in a business-like, civil manner when speaking to or about your ex. Think of it as a special gift to your children. It will be a lot better for them in the long run, and you will feel calmer and more in control.
In-law interference. Do your in-laws undermine your parenting or your authority with your children? That can be annoying, especially around the holidays. But stewing about it for weeks in advance just makes it worse for you. It’s like “rehearsing” how bad it’s going to be. And each “rehearsal” escalates your annoyance.
Stress-busting tip — You can probably predict what your in-laws will say or do. But their behavior, no matter how criticizing, is not a measure of you as a person. In fact, criticism, nosiness and bad manners reveal more about them than about you. If necessary, limit the amount of time you spend with them during the holidays. And during that time, find something to keep you busy, such as helping out in the kitchen or looking at old family photo albums with your kids.
Bottom line: Holidays are a time for fun and family. The important ingredients are the people, not the details. Remind yourself of that daily and your priorities will self-adjust.