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Helping families manage stress throughout the holiday season

Despite nature’s call to slow down and hibernate, we tend to speed up and do even more during the holiday season. Family travels, holiday commitments, family expectations and dynamics, shopping, and end of school terms and corporate fiscal periods. It all adds up to an enormous amount of extra stress.

Because children are extremely perceptive, they know when something is wrong, and they pick up on our feelings. As a result, it is vital for adults to learn how to manage stress, so they can model appropriately for the young people in their lives and teach stress management techniques.

This article provides advice to help families keep stress in check through this holiday season and beyond.


Do focus on one thing at a time

Multitasking creates the illusion of productivity, while actually compounding stress. However, the demands of our 24/7 culture of e-connectivity create the sense that we must always be “on” or available, which can make multitasking seem inevitable.

One simple way to regain focus is to take control of your media gadgets. Why not devote some time first thing each day--before checking voice mail, Facebook, email and texts--to work on important things? Set boundaries. Consider completely unplugging devices at least one day a week. Block off time for more immersive experiences in which you do one activity mindfully and with intent. This can improve your productivity and refresh the brain.

Do say no

It is very easy to overcommit ourselves, especially during the holidays. So why not make it easier on yourself–and others? Consider scheduling your work party earlier in December, or in January, when people will really appreciate the break. Ask friends to do the same, spreading out celebrations over a few months.

While school calendars can make family commitments a bit tougher, suggest gathering for birthdays, graduations and special anniversaries at other times of the year. When all else fails, it is okay to just say “no” for now and schedule something for later.

Do set expectations and give choices

With tights family budgets and high media-fueled expectations, responding to your kids’ wish lists can be tough. Try giving them a choice between gifts on their list. Or take this opportunity to teach budgeting. For example, tell them that Santa is on a budget this year, and ask them to make a list of the things they can get with X dollars. This gives them a sense of control, maintains your role as parent and helps you avoid breaking the bank. Forming holiday budget agreements with ex-spouses also can help avert the “bidding wars” that can accompany divorce.

Do concentrate on a positive attitude

Above all, it is vital to keep a positive outlook, which can organically arise from the practice of yoga, developing a sense of self-control and nurturing our social connections. These activities can create a positive feedback loop, boosting our spirits and our sense of possibility. And when we have a good attitude, we are much more resilient in the face of stress and other challenges. We can endure a lot if we are happy. And our happiness can bolster those around us, creating another positive feedback loop and reinforcing our other strengths.


Do not forget the importance of quality sleep

The more plugged-in we are, the less quality sleep we get. Sleep researchers recommend turning off electronic media several hours before bedtime. Try having everyone in your family turn off and leave their phones on the kitchen counter by a certain time each night, which reduces at least one distraction for teens doing their homework on a computer. And with the media you do use, be choosy. Don’t just consume what is there -- because it is there. Watch, read, listen to or interact with media that matters to you and, ideally, leaves you with positive feelings.

Do not wait to establish your health momentum

The combination of inclement weather, seasonal demands and sugary holiday treats can wreak havoc on health. So this year, create a New Year’s resolution to get more exercise in the fall, prior to the holidays. Even just a 15-minute walk outside or an indoor spin on the stationary bike can do wonders for your attitude, with the added blessing of peaceful time to think about and process everything that is going on. And you will be able to eat those holiday sweets with impunity. When the average American adult spends about two hours a day in front of the TV, is there really such an excuse as, “I don’t have time”?

Do not underestimate the power of control

Negative stress often comes with the feeling of life being out of control. But we must stop and ask: Is this really the case? Often, the problem is not with life, but our perceptions of it. If we can develop a sense of control, we feel calmer and stronger, more able to handle challenges and hurdle obstacles. As the practice of yoga depends on the regulation of breath and body, it can nurture feelings of self-control.

Self-control also involves being able to step back and evaluate a situation on its own terms: To see what is happening, how it is affecting you and what you can do to change the situation or deal with the problem. This is, of course, also part of the art of mindfulness that comes through the practice of yoga.

One of the benefits of sustained, regular yoga practice is that it trains both the mind and body to stay calm. It instills and reinforces the mindfulness that can become a powerful force against the pressures of daily life. It rejuvenates and restores, making us better equipped to face the tasks and challenges that each day brings. It provides an antidote against stress. Even the simplest acts of breath regulation can bring a sense of calm, control and stability in an otherwise chaotic world.

Do not discount the need for social connections

It is easy to feel helpless when we feel alone. For this reason, social affiliation is another crucial component to dealing with stress. We need to know that we are not alone, that we are part of many communities-- families, friends, work, social or civic groups--and that we are important parts of these communities.

In fact, it is not only crucial to our mental well-being, but to our physical health, as recent research has shown that the quality of a person’s social life can have an even greater impact than diet and exercise on health and well-being. There is growing evidence that being a member of a social group can significantly reduce the risk of certain conditions, such as stroke, dementia and even the common cold. Consequently, it is important for us to make time for the relationships in our lives and to establish social connections where we find them lacking.

Jumping cartoon

While some holiday stress is negative, some aspects are positive. This is an exciting time of year, ripe with new possibilities. But when it comes all at once with no reprieve, holiday stress can place a heavy burden on our shoulders. And the children around us are likely aware of this, which, in turn, can add to their stress.

Because children are extremely perceptive, they are often aware of things that adults may not be tuned into. They know when something is wrong. They may not be able to say what it is or why it is, but they pick up on our attitudes, feelings and values. It’s one of the ways they learn from us.

Consequently, it becomes even more important to deal with our stress. Keys to reducing stress include practicing yoga, quality sleep, nutritious food, positive thinking, social affiliation, outlets through which to channel frustrations and creating a sense of control in our lives.

More expert advice about Being a Better Parent

Photo Credits: the art hoodie series - 4 by lululemon athletica via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Lynea Gillen, LPC, RYT200Child & Family Counselor and Author of Yoga Calm for Children

Lynea is an innovator in the field of wellness education for youth. From it's development in a behavior classroom in a rural Oregon town ten years ago, her Yoga Calm program is now being used with tens of thousands of children each day in divers...

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