November 14, 2023

Difficult holidays ahead? Humor and Reality with Kids

By Laurel Malloy, M.Ed., LPC

Ubiquitous this time of year are the articles, blogs and reminders that “The Holidays” are stressful.  I am writing with a Jolly Old Elf viewpoint for much of this article, while recognizing that many families celebrate cultural holidays, religious holy days, and even a non-secular Christmas that does not include him. I hope you will “translate” to find the core that is at the center of these ideas to reduce stress in children during the holiday season.

  1. Use humor as necessary.  Indulge in it as if it were a fine brand of chocolate.  One reason children have stress during the holidays is that their parents are super-stressed themselves.  When you are dealing with short-term stress, humor can be a key stress reducer.  The Mayo Clinic has a list of 7 benefits of humor to health and stress reduction (see resources).  Ask your kids to make you laugh every day!  They’ll laugh, too, and soon everyone is feeling better!
  1.  Stick to normal schedules.  This is especially challenging with parental “nights out” and travel, but children need their routines and rituals, including a good 8-12 hours of sleep (depending upon age) a day.  
  1. Make your child go outside and play!  I live in San Antonio, TX. November and December can get cold, but nothing like Minnesota.  So why are our children huddled around the TV while the Minnesota kids are out on the sub-zero playground?  Outside play will get them tired and oh-so-happy to be let inside again.

  1. Have fun together in a way that means as much to your children as it does to you.  Perhaps you’ll bake holiday cookies together - and serve those “masterpieces” exactly the way your kids made them.  Cut to my kitchen circa 1990-something:  two boys, I decide we’ll make Snow-White-Dwarf-Face cookies!  I certainly did not imagine the nightmares my boys created (Is there a dwarf called Scary?), but 1) the boys helped clean up afterwards and 2) we all had fun.  Anything that you want to do with your children that you won’t have to fight with them over is worth a try.  And if it doesn’t work this year, try something different next year.
  1. Your child will melt down in public.  See #2.  The natural consequence of not having a normal schedule is a melt down.  The intensity will depend upon just how ab-normal your child’s schedule has become.  So, again, manage your stress first.  Be aware of how you are reacting to situations.  Does flying (or airports) cause you stress?  How do you deal with “those” looks from others?  What is in your personal de-stress kit that may work for your children?  Worrying about a melt-down does not work, but preparing for it does.  

a) Do you make your children a “travel bag” full of fun things to do and snack on?  Hold back a few special items until needed.  Your child does not need to know about them in advance (or you’ll never hear the end of it.)  

b) For the airport, nothing says “I got this” better than purposeful movement.  Children cannot sit quietly for hours, and after the rush to the gate, they may be too revved up to sit down immediately. Yes, I realize that airports are crowded, but small clear spaces do exist if you’re willing to forgo that primo seat.  Simple stretches, “Simon Says,” and “I spy” are all fun ways to spend some time. 

c) One family I know purposely chooses non-stop flights, the earlier in the day the better.  It’s not always possible, but they have reduced their travel stress significantly with this one move.

  1. For those heading to points yonder for the holidays, some special memories at home before or after the “big trip” can be really stress-reducing.  Some families have a “Holiday Movie Night” complete with those huge tins of popcorn.  My family’s choice of movie changed as the children grew from A Christmas Story to Jingle All the Way to Die Hard.  Pick a movie that is appropriate for the youngest watcher.  And if you have a large spread of ages in your family, you could even add a “secret” movie night for the older set.  Going to a live performance of The Nutcracker or Amahl and the Night Visitors could be a magical tradition if it fits the family budget and is available nearby.
  1. Do you really need that elf?  It’s one thing to say, “better watch out,” but this is a SPY in your house.  Santa is better than this; he’s magic!  He doesn’t need a spying elf.  Besides, it will really help your mood not to have to find new places to put him! 
  1.  Back to the big red guy himself. He’s great, and the pictures are fun.  But he sets the bar way too high!  Add to that the stories and shows that make lists miles long, and you are setting up parents for agony and children for disappointment.  Think back to the message of Jingle All The Way.  Jamie only wanted the action figure so badly because he needed a “dad” in his life who would keep his promises.  Spending family time will be more meaningful to your children’s mental well being than chasing the latest and greatest toy. 
  1. So, what can you do about Santa’s lists?  Wanting more toys does not actually reduce a child’s stress but may, in fact, add to it.  Sure, let her start with that television-style 2-mile long list, then teach her how to prioritize and pare it down to 5 toys.  One toy is the big dream; she needs to understand that she may not get it. Two are affordable options (you decide what that means, but those would be the two she tells Santa about).  And the last two are for sharing with relatives who buy your children presents (and will need to match their budgets).  Yes, opening presents will take 10 minutes not 2 hours; to me that’s another stress reducer (fewer items to wrap, less trash to pick up, greater likelihood that your child will actually play with all the new toys. Win-Win-Win!)  Learning to prioritize wants teaches delayed gratification, which can reduce stress.
  1. Look out for others, and teach your children to do the same.  Fortunately, the holidays bring out a generous spirit that encourages people to go to facilities for the elderly, homeless shelters, group homes, animal rescues and similar places.  Unfortunately, that generous spirit may not last after January 1.  To help reduce holiday stress, please consider working with your children to plan a post-holiday visit.  The planning can occur during November and December, but the visit could be in January or February.  Be the family who realizes that generosity does not pay attention to the calendar, and help create caring, generous children.  Bonus: generosity (also known as altruism) is a stress reducer.  

Having a child with behavioral concerns can add to a family’s stress any time of the year. The therapists at  Healing Minds Behavioral Health work with children and youth aged 4-25 on a variety of mental health concerns. Let us partner with you to meet the mental health needs of your family.  

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Harvard Health Publishing
Mayo Clinic: Stress Management
Bookriot:  No I don't Carry Elf on a Shelf
What are the health benefits of altruism
National Institute for Health: Altruism under Stress


Laurel Malloy, M.Ed., LPC is a licensed clinical therapist at Healing Minds Behavioral Health, PLLC.

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