What to Do When the Holidays Aren’t Happy

winter-door-decoration-christmas
Image via Pexels

It was a hard Christmas. It was a sad Christmas. It was a get-through-it kind of Christmas. And we did.

I will never forget that very first Christmas after my father died. We did our best to preserve the usual holiday traditions: bake the cookies, decorate the tree, take a photo under our stockings, and attend Christmas Eve mass as a family. We went through motions. We opened the gifts one by one and ate the baked French toast with a side of coffee cake. We smiled, we joked, we remembered years past, and we did our best to keep moving forward. But some of the magic was missing.

It's billed as the most wonderful time of the year but, for many families, the holidays aren't always happy. Loss, divorce, illness, financial insecurity, and family feuds are just a small sample of the stressors that can leave people feeling stressed and overwhelmed during the holiday season. Add kids to the mix and it can be downright hard.

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What do you do when stress takes the happy out of your holiday?

simple christmas
Image via Flickr/ Land Between The Lakes KY/TN

Think small.

The holiday season has grown exponentially over time. It used to be a few lights and wreath or some candles in the window would suffice for decorating, but these days houses are lit up, roof to driveway. But it's not just the lights. Everything seems bigger and flashier and the season extends from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. It's a long stretch for a family under stress.

There's no rule that you have to engage in all of the holiday cheer. Think small when you're under stress. Brainstorm with your family to determine the best way to celebrate given your circumstances. Be honest with friends and extended family. State your limits and ask for help if you need it.

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stockings
Image via Flickr/ John Ashley

Preserve meaningful traditions.

There are so many options for starting new traditions that it can be overwhelming. Step back and think about the traditions that mean the most to your family. Ask your kids for input. More often than not, baking cookies and drinking hot chocolate top the list of fun family traditions for little kids. We forget that they see the beauty in small moments together — those moments feel huge to them.

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Image via Flickr/ Kai Schreiber

Talk about feelings.

It is the natural instinct of the parent to try to protect children from negative emotions, but when we stuff our own feelings, they come out in other ways. Talk about feelings with as a family. Acknowledge the hard parts of the holiday season and work through those feelings together.

I once worked with a child who lost a close family member close to Christmas. More than anything, that child wanted a small Christmas tree outside so that the loved one could view it from heaven.

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When families talk about the hard stuff together (in age-appropriate language, of course) and verbalize their feelings (even parents!) they learn to move forward together.

winter walk
Image via Flickr/ Joseph

Try something new.

As much as tapping into family traditions can bring us a feeling of togetherness during the holidays, it can also leave us feeling sad when times are tough. That holiday photo under the stockings was the last straw for me that Christmas. That was my father's favorite photo to take each year.

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Brainstorm a few new ideas to build some excitement for the family. Sledding as a family or a winter hike can be just as meaningful as the cookies by the fire. Switch up family game night to add some new games to the mix. Make ornaments for neighbors or light candles with close friends this time. Think outside the box to find new traditions that might help relieve some of the stress of the holiday season.

Do you struggle during the holiday season?

 

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What to Do When the Holidays Aren’t Happy

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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