It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Or so they say. Yet the holidays can also be a time of ramped-up stress. You’re dealing with blended families or your overbearing mother-in-law. And you have to break the news to your teen that he’s not getting the new gaming system that all of his buddies are.
We’ve identified five sticky holiday situations and asked the experts for some advice to help you managing holiday stress.
Holiday Stress Relief for Common Problems
Situation 1: Your teen wants a gift you can’t afford
Teens often have iPhone tastes with a flip-phone budget. When my kids were little, they’d ask for something outlandish. And then add, “It’s okay if you can’t afford it; I’ll just ask Santa!”
Fortunately, teens usually have a more realistic picture of their parents’ budgets. So not having to contend with that “miracle worker” certainly removes some of the pressure.
Still, it can be challenging when teens have their hearts set on a marquee gift. Or they just want to keep up with friends who have more means or parents with more lavish gift-giving norms, says Stephen Gray Wallace, an adolescent counselor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE).
When it comes to holidays with teenagers, it’s helpful to set expectations early on. Also, try to find a compromise if there’s something they really want that you can’t afford or don’t want to buy. “Suggest they earn the money to cover some of the expense, whether through an after-school job or by doing extra chores around the house,” he says.
Another option is to spend money on a family adventure everyone can enjoy together. A trip can help take the sting out of a gift pile less glittery than their friends’. Consider holding a family meeting to choose the destination, suggests Wallace.
“People tend to support what they create. And teens are at an age where they want to have control and help make decisions,” he says. When they’ve helped plan the beach weekend or day at the local amusement park, you can remind them of the joint decision when they feel frustrated they’re not getting a coveted smartphone upgrade.
Situation 2: You’re not the perfect family (Who is?)
The judgmental mother-in-law who can’t stop criticizing your teen’s (or your!) hairstyle and wardrobe. The boorish uncle who launches into a political tirade at every gathering.
It’s no secret that we can’t pick our families, and sometimes they can make our holidays with teenagers anything but happy. On the flip side, there might be beloved relatives who live across the country whom you just can’t visit this year.
Forget trying to hide the issues. Instead, talk to your teen about situations that aren’t ideal, says Wallace. For example, you can warn your daughter that Grandma is likely to make a remark about what a shame it is she gave up piano lessons. But that’s her cue to practice nodding politely and responding positively.
“In many ways, the pressure is off as your kids age. You are no longer going to feel that you have to create a Norman Rockwell-style perfect holiday as you might have tried to in the past,” says Nancy Shah, a psychologist in Solana Beach, California. “Let go of expectations and find something to be grateful for, no matter what the situation.”
One technique Shah recommends is to imagine yourself in a bubble that is impermeable to other people’s toxic energy. Picture the insults or offensive remarks bouncing off, while you stay calm and serene in the center of your bubble.
You can also set boundaries by making a joke or creating some other diversion. For example, duck a political firestorm by joking, “I’m on a political fast, sorry. What do you think of the upcoming college football bowl schedule?” or asking your aunt for her pie recipe.
While most family dynamics involve relatively minor issues, remember that if there’s a situation that’s truly untenable—where you or your teen feels unsafe or attacked—it’s wise to remove yourselves from the scene, Wallace says.
Situation 3: Your ex has the kids for the holidays
Divorced parents have an extra set of challenging circumstances to deal with, as they have to remake family traditions. Although usually childcare divisions are carefully and legally worked out, it’s vital that both parents be on the same page to provide a united front to teens, Wallace says.
Shah knows first-hand how it feels to deal with a holiday sans kids, since she has an ex who has since moved to India. Although she dreaded sending her kids overseas for the entire holiday break last year, she agreed because she knew it would be good for their relationship with their dad and their extended family in India.
Instead of wallowing, she moved their joint celebration to Dec. 19 before they left, and then focused on creating a fun experience for herself without her kids. “My parents came to town, and we planned a big adult party so that I was doing something completely different,” she says. It didn’t make her miss her holidays with teenagers less, but it helped her cope with their absence.
Situation 4: Your teen no longer enjoys your beloved holiday traditions
In some houses, Mom might still want that Elf on the Shelf, while the teen wants to rip it to shreds.
It can be hard on parents to give up traditions. I was crushed the year that my kids rejected two traditions. They didn’t want to help arrange our lighted holiday houses. And they lost interest in paging through our extensive library of holiday books that we had collected over the years.
This might be the time to make a new tradition that everyone can approve of, suggests Wallace. Let’s say you’ve always gone out to dinner after the candle-lighting service. This year, however, your teen wants to get together with friends. See if you can find a compromise. Maybe you can eat a big brunch before the service. Then you can let her head out with her friends after the service.
“Traditions are important, but they are going to change as your kids age,” he says.
Of course, some traditions may be non-negotiable. But your kids are more apt to buy in if you explain why, Shah advises. “Tell them you will forgo the obligatory Santa picture if your teen will join you at the Nutcracker without complaining because it reminds you of seeing it with your grandma when you were her age.”
Pre-planning for the holidays with teenagers is vital. Hold a family meeting in October to go over what traditions your kids are still enthusiastic about this year, recommends Shah.
“Parents should be objective and willing to let go of their own needs. Some moments are going to be better than others, but no matter what your holidays look like, there will be something to be grateful for and happy about,” she says. “Actively look for what is working, and let go of what is not satisfactory.”
Situation 5: You’re all feeling overwhelmed by holiday obligations
We all picture our teens moving effortlessly through holiday parties and rituals. But it’s important to respect and acknowledge different personality types, Wallace says. Your teen might be more introverted and need more downtime than others.
So, when you’re scheduling activities, consider offering your teen the chance to opt out of something that won’t be enjoyable for him. The key is to come up with the schedule ahead of time, so he feels as though his voice has been heard.
And that goes for you, too, Shah adds, reminding parents also to commit to getting enough exercise, alone time, and sleep to take care of their own mental health.
“Try not to fall into the trap that overtakes the world this time of year,” she says. “Slow down and enjoy because that’s what the holidays are really supposed to be about … aren’t they?”
Will the holiday season always present some challenges? Of course, this is real life we’re talking about. But with the words of our experts ringing in your ears, we hope you will stress less and enjoy more this year. After all, before you know it, your teenagers will grow up, leave home, and be the favorite guests at your holiday table.