Tips for handling stress over the holidays

What are your fondest holiday memories from childhood? Does your family have that one special tradition that makes the holiday so memorable? What made it so special? Was it the food, the activity, the location, the people who were present or was it that special longed-for gift finally realized? What do you want your children to think of when they reminisce about the holidays?

One of my favorite childhood memories is coming home from church on Christmas Eve to find that Santa Claus had come while we were gone. To this day, it is still a mystery how Santa pulled that off while we all went to that special candle-lit service.

As I reflect on the holiday traditions that I want to provide for my own family, I am constantly in conflict with the goal of making things more simple and less materialistic and still making their every dream come true. That is a diametrically opposing goal if there ever was one! No wonder we all feel so much stress during the most wonderful time of the year.

For children, the holidays are filled with so much excitement and anticipation. But what happens when the ideal doesn't happen? How do we help our children handle disappointment and the extra measure of holiday stress that comes from wanting everything to be perfect or at least fondly memorable?

When things don't go exactly like you or your child hope this holiday season, consider unwrapping some distress tolerance and mindfulness skills from Marsha Linehan's Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

One skill I particularly like is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance aims to accept things as they are instead of the way we wish they could be. Radical acceptance describes the way we accept things-- all the way, completely or totally 100 percent.

Easier said than done, I know. While embracing reality as it is might feel like an impossible task, there are some things that you can change, which might help you and your child handle the normal stressors of the holiday.

Remember it is OK to say no to some things. You have a finite amount of energy, time and resources. You can't say yes to everything. Trying to stick to your child's usual routines for meals, movement/exercise and rest -- including bedtime and nap schedule -- will reduce stress so your family can better enjoy the holidays. No one will have fun if someone is hungry or tired. Make those basic needs a priority. Take care of yourself both mentally and physically.

Children are affected by the emotional well-being of their parents or caregivers. They can also learn how to successfully cope with stress by observing how you handle stress. Make a plan to focus on one thing at a time, including shopping, cooking, and family get-togethers.

Mindfulness teaches us to stop and pay attention to what is happening in the moment. Focus your attention on one thing and notice how you're feeling at the time. Withhold immediate judgment, but instead be curious about the experience.

Remember that many children and adults experience a sense of loss, sadness or isolation during the holidays. It is important to be sensitive to these feelings and ask for help for you, your children, family members or friends if needed.

Most important of all, enjoy the holidays for what they are -- an opportunity to enjoy time with your family. Do things together like playing board games, and spend time visiting with relatives, neighbors and friends.

May your stockings be full of radical acceptance, mindfulness and peace this holiday season.

Tiffany George is a licensed professional counselor with SSM Health Medical Group. She earned a bachelor of science in psychology from the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, Minnesota and her masters in counseling from Missouri Baptist University-St. Louis. She is a certified therapist and K-12 school counselor. To make an appointment with Tiffany George, please call 573-681-3249.