A stress-free holiday season? Mission: Possible!

The holidays can be a stressful and emotional time for parents with young children. Does your wish list this year include a less hectic holiday season? Check out the articles below to put the fun back into your family gatherings and gain a better understanding of what stresses you out.


Putting the fun back into family holiday gatherings

Family gatherings tend to pile up over the holidays, which can be hard for some parents. If you can relate, here are some ideas on how to make them more enjoyable.

By Amélie Cournoyer

Family gatherings tend to pile up over the holidays, which can be hard for some parents. If you can relate, here are some ideas on how to make them more enjoyable.

The holiday season is a time of celebration, but with it comes extra chores such as decorating, buying gifts, and planning meals and outings with family and friends. “There are more things on your to-do list, but not more hours in the day to get them all done,” says family coach Laithicia Adam. “That’s why it’s important to set realistic expectations for you and your child. It’ll reduce the pressure, fatigue, and stress caused by a hectic holiday schedule.” In other words, you’ll benefit from acknowledging that not everything will go exactly the way you want it to.

For blended families and grandparents who have separated, the number of family reunions can sometimes get out of hand. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to turn down certain invitations, especially if they trigger anxiety. You can also leave gatherings a little early to avoid running out of energy or emotional bandwidth.

Snowballing stress

Another delicate aspect of family get-togethers is having to be around people you don’t necessarily get along with. Some parents dread having to deal with family tensions, or the comments certain relatives make about how their child behaves. “If family get-togethers stress you out, try to pinpoint exactly what bothers you,” suggests psychologist Nicolas Chevrier. “That way, you can focus on finding tactful ways to handle the situation.”

“For instance,” Dr. Chevrier explains, “if you’re dreading a dinner because of one aunt in particular, you can simply limit your interactions with her.” For bigger issues, however, such as if your brother is always commenting on how you’re raising your child, it might be better to have a private discussion before the family gathering. In this example, you could tell your brother how his criticisms make you feel. You can also talk to a family member you trust, like your mother, who you know will understand and support you if you feel uncomfortable at the gathering.

At the same time, you may have to let some of the annoying things your relatives do slide. Just remember that while letting things slide does mean having to accept certain things, it does not mean you have to accept what isn’t acceptable—inappropriate comments or hostility, for instance. If a situation gets heated, it’s better to calmly assert your boundaries with statements such as “I feel like you’re getting worked up. I’d prefer if we could talk more calmly.”

Try not to focus exclusively on the individuals who bother you. Instead, turn your attention to people you get along with and those your child enjoys being around. Lastly, don’t forget that there’s more to the holidays than family gatherings. You’ll have quieter days, too! As a matter of fact, alternating big family get-togethers with rest days will help you recharge your batteries. Carving out some me time, listening to music, playing sports, and asking a loved one for help are also good ways to alleviate the stress that can come with the holidays.

5 parents share their stories

Five parents talk about challenges they’ve faced around the holidays and at family gatherings. Experts weigh in and offer advice.

Five parents talk about challenges they’ve faced around the holidays and at family gatherings. Experts weigh in and offer advice.

1. Feeling judged

“When we celebrate the holidays with family, my mother- and sister-in-law often look after my son,” says Isabelle, mother of 15-month-old André. “But they’re constantly pointing out things he needs that I don’t notice. They’ll say things like ‘He’s hungry,’ ‘He’s cold,’ or ‘He’s not dressed warmly enough.’ Since the comments are coming from experienced moms, I feel like I’m not taking good care of my baby because I’m not noticing these things myself.”

When celebrating with family, it’s common to feel like people are judging either you or your child. Relatives may make comments about your child or give unsolicited parenting advice, for example.

According to psychologist Nicolas Chevrier, these remarks are rarely ill-intentioned. “It might feel as if your parenting skills are under attack, but your relatives are usually just thinking about your child’s well-being.”

In general, Dr. Chevrier suggests remaining open to comments and trying to view the situation from other people’s perspective. “Rather than taking remarks as criticism or judgment, try to see them as constructive feedback,” he says. “That said, you have the final word because you’re the parent.” You also know your child better than anyone else, so remember to take what others say with a grain of salt.

2. Feeling guilty

“I’m lucky to get two weeks off over the holidays, but I still send my son to daycare some days, especially toward the end of the break,” says Claudine, mother of 2-year-old Louis. “I use the time to get ready to go back to work by cleaning the house, doing errands, and prepping meals. But I have a nagging sense of guilt about not spending that time with him.”

The break in routine and a tendency to idealize this time of year can make feelings of guilt more intense during the holiday season. We put pressure on ourselves to make reality match the image we have in our heads.

According to psychoeducator Stéphanie Pelletier, guilt arises when a person thinks that what they’re doing goes against their personal values or standards. Consequently, the more you demand from yourself as a parent, the more likely you are to feel guilty. “To reduce their sense of guilt, parents can try going easier on themselves, such as by allowing themselves do one thing at a time,” she says. For example, if you do housework while your child is at daycare, remember that there are benefits for both of you. You get the satisfaction of having a clean house, and you and your little one get more quality time together when they get home.

Feeling guilty about working over the holidays? “If your guilt is related to your desire to spend quality time with your child, make the most of the time you have by playing games and doing special holiday-related activities,” says Pelletier. “That way, you can experience the magic of Christmas together.” For example, take a walk in the evening to admire the lights around your neighborhood, make a Christmas card, or bake a holiday dessert.

3. Managing on a tight budget

“I used to spoil my family and goddaughter at Christmas, but it’s different now that I have my own kids. I’m on a tighter budget,” says Michel, father of 3-year-old Théa and 9-month-old Delphine. “This year, I know I can’t go all out on gifts like I usually do. Not being able to give as much as I’d like to is stressful.” From gifts and outings to fancy meals, the holidays can get pretty expensive!

“There are lots of ways to celebrate the holidays on a tight budget. It’s all in the planning,” says family coach Laithicia Adam. For example, you could suggest that everyone give budget-friendly gifts, such as homemade items (knitwear, jewellery, spaghetti sauce, photos, etc.), a helping hand (with babysitting, cooking, chores, etc.), or things you have at home that you no longer use.

“When it comes to kids, most would prefer spending time with you over expensive gifts. Consider planning a special free activity, like a game night or an afternoon of sledding or skating,” suggests Pelletier.

Of course, children will always be excited about unwrapping a gift or two. Adam has an idea on how you can give them that experience at a low cost: “Some options include buying used toys on buy-and-sell websites like Kijiji or LesPAC, through Facebook groups, or at secondhand toy stores, flea markets, or bazaars.”

4. Handling comparisons between children

“At Christmas, we like to reminisce while looking through family photo albums. My parents often end up comparing my daughters,” says Yvonne, mother of Dalia, 4, and Julia, 6. “They’ll say to my youngest, ‘Look, your big sister was doing this at your age, and you still can’t.’”

During family gatherings, some people aren’t shy about comparing children. They can say things like “What? He’s still not walking yet?” or “She doesn’t talk much for her age.”

Laithicia Adam points out that not all children learn things in the same order. “Comparing one child to another is like comparing apples to oranges,” she says. All children develop at their own pace. While one is developing gross motor skills, another might be building language or fine motor skills. “The developmental stages are simply reference points,” Adam continues. “It’s not necessarily a cause for concern if your child seems to be slightly behind in a certain area compared to the average.”

If a friend or family member tends to compare your child to others in a less than favourable way, why not talk about your child’s strengths? For example, you could explain that while your daughter can’t run yet, she’s learned to eat with a spoon. A bit of humour can also lighten the mood: “He should be done with diapers by the time he’s 18 or so . . .”

5. Having unrealistic expectations

“A few years ago, I would always expect a lot from my kids during family gatherings,” says Virginie, mother of 1-year-old Alex, 5-year-old Justine, and 10-year-old Noémie. “I’d tell them to behave, be polite to the adults, and play nicely with their cousins. I put a lot of pressure on them because I wanted to look good in front of my aunts and uncles, who I see just once a year. But it wasn’t much fun. I was always hovering over them.”

Who doesn’t want to look good in front of family? It’s normal to want your child to be at their best in front of relatives. Unfortunately, this attitude can cause some parents to put a lot of pressure on themselves and their kids.

“Lots of parents tend to expect more of their children during the holidays, often just for the sake of appearances,” says Dr. Chevrier. “But it’s best to cut them some slack.” The holidays can be a roller coaster of emotions for young children, which inevitably affects their behaviour. “While some behaviours are unacceptable at any time, like hitting people or throwing things, try to be more understanding if your child starts to cry for no reason, makes a mess, or bickers,” Dr. Chevrier continues. Keep in mind your child could also be tired of going to so many family gatherings.

To help your child manage the excitement of the holiday season, do yourself a favour and set aside time to play with them. You can also bring simple board games to family gatherings so your child can play with their aunts and uncles!

Give the gift of kindness

Showing kindness to other parents means respecting their choices and being empathetic. This will help build their confidence as parents. “Be a good listener and try to put yourself in other people’s shoes to understand what they’re feeling and going through,” suggests psychologist Nicolas Chevrier. “Ask if they need help or advice before offering any. Sometimes, parents just want a sympathetic ear.” And don’t forget that if you would appreciate a little kindness during family gatherings, the best strategy is to be kind to others and yourself first!
Things to keep in mind
  • At family gatherings, it’s sometimes helpful to let certain behaviour or comments go, even if you don’t appreciate them.
  • Family gatherings will also be less stressful if you lower your expectations regarding your child.
  • During the holidays, it’s a good idea to strike a balance between going out and staying in.

Naître et grandir

Source:Naître et grandir magazine, December 2018
Research and copywriting: Amélie Cournoyer
Scientific review: Annie Goulet, psychologist
Updated: November 2023

Photos: GettyImages/ManonAllard, GettyImages/LiseGagne, GettyImages/Kontrec


Book for parents

Les angoissés de Noël, R. Fiammetti, Éditions Josette Lyon, 2021, 102 pp.



  • “Tis the season to be . . . stressed?” C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital, University of Michigan, December 20, 2021. mottpoll.org