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? 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 multiply 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 multiply 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 a slew of extra chores, such as decorating, buying gifts, and planning meals and outings with family and friends. “There are more chores to do, 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.”

Snowballing stress

The stress of family get-togethers is no help. 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. “You can then start thinking about tactful ways to handle the situation.”

“For instance,” 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 comments on your parenting make you feel.

At the same time, you may have to let some of the annoying things your relatives do slide. Just remember that letting things slide means accepting that not everything will go the way you want it to. It doesn’t mean accepting what isn’t acceptable—inappropriate comments or hostility, for instance. In these types of situations, 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. And don’t forget that there’s more to the holidays than family gatherings. You will also have quieter days. As a matter of fact, alternating big family get-togethers with rest days will help recharge your batteries.

5 parents share their stories

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

Five parents talk about challenges they’ve faced during 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, it makes me feel like I’m not taking good care of my baby because I’m not noticing these things myself.”

During family gatherings around the holidays, it’s common to feel judged or get the sense that people are judging your child. Relatives may make comments about your child or dole out parenting advice, for instance.

According to psychologist Nicolas Chevrier, these comments are rarely ill-intentioned. “It might feel as if your parenting skills are under attack, but more often than not, your relatives are simply thinking about your child’s well-being.”

In general, Chevrier suggests being open to comments and trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. “Rather than taking remarks as criticism or judgment, try to see them as constructive feedback,” says Chevrier. “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 two-year-old Louis. “I use the time to get ready to go back to work by cleaning the house, doing errands, and making food. But I’m not relaxed about it. I feel guilty about not spending the 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 the holidays match the image we have in our heads.

Psychoeducator Stéphanie Pelletier explains that feeling guilty often stems from self-judgment: “To feel less guilty, parents need to believe that they’re doing what’s best for their family.” For instance, if you take care of housework while your child is at daycare, remind yourself that it’s a win-win situation for you and your little one. You’ll get things done faster, and your child will have your full attention when he gets home.

Feeling guilty about working over the holidays? “Make the most of the time you spend with your child to play special holiday games and activities so that you can experience the magic of Christmas together,” says Pelletier. Options include going for evening strolls to admire Christmas lights, making Christmas cards, or pulling out the fancy dinnerware at breakfast.

3. Celebrating on a tight budget

“I used to spoil my family and goddaughter at Christmastime, but it’s different now that I have my own kids. I’m on a tighter budget. 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,” admits Michel, father of three-year-old Théa and nine-month-old Delphine. Gifts, outings, fancy meals—the holidays can get pretty expensive!

“There are lots of ways to celebrate the holidays on a tighter budget. It’s all in the planning,” says family coach Laithicia Adam. You could, for instance, suggest an economical theme for everyone’s gifts, such as homemade items (knitting, jewellery, spaghetti sauce, photos, etc.), services (babysitting, cooking, chores, etc.), or things you have at home that you no longer use.

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

Of course, children will always be excited about unwrapping a gift or two, and Adam has suggestions for how to give them that experience at a low cost. “Some options are 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, four, and Julia, six. “They’ll say to my youngest, ‘Look, your big sister was doing this at your age, and you still can’t do it yet.’”

During family holiday celebrations, some people aren’t shy about comparing children to one another, saying things like, “What? He’s still not walking yet?” or “She doesn’t talk much for her age.”

Family coach 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 has a tendency to compare your child to others in a less than favourable way, why not talk about your child’s strengths? You could explain that while your daughter isn’t running yet, she can eat with a spoon, for example. A bit of humour can also lighten the mood: “By the time he’s 18, he should be done with diapers . . .”

5. Having unrealistic expectations

“A few years ago, I would always expect a lot from my kids during family gatherings,” says Virginie, mother of one-year-old Alex, five-year-old Justine, and ten-year-old Noémie. “I’d tell them to behave themselves, 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? What parents don’t want their children to be at their best in front of relatives? Unfortunately, this attitude can cause some people 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 to look good in the eyes of others, but they should really lower their expectations,” says psychologist Nicolas Chevrier. 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,” Chevrier says. Keep in mind that your child could also be tired of going to so many family gatherings.


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 bit of kindness during family gatherings, the best strategy is to lead by example by being kind both to others and to yourself!


Naître et grandir

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


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