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Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Stresses Moderation to Decrease Pressure, Family Conflicts at the Holidays

Experts offer parents tips for maintaining a healthy balance

Mounting credit card bills, hectic travel schedules and traffic backups at the mall can sometimes turn parents into Grinches during the holidays. This often can lead to conflicts with their kids.

“The holidays are a positive time of year, but there is a lot of stress in the preparation,” said Phil Phelps, LSW, manager of Children’s Child and Family Counseling Center. “Things that can be positive stressors also can cause heightened periods of irritability. Kids are over-stimulated and parents are not as available for them or may overreact to their excitement. The children then are resentful when they get a negative response. In turn, they may act up, then parents get even more angry. It’s a vicious cycle that can ruin the holidays.”

So, how can parents manage stress during this busy time of year and stay as cool as Frosty the Snowman around their kids? Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh experts have some suggestions for parents.

Keep a balanced perspective.

  • Parents should plan time for activities they value most.
  • Focus less on material goods and more on family and friends.
  • Keep gifts simple. Babies and toddlers are usually just as excited about the packaging as they are with the gift.

Manage time and limit activities.

  • If parents are pulled in too many directions, they will become stressed and less able to enjoy the holidays.
  • Plan ahead to avoid last-minute hassles. Do not wait until Christmas Eve to buy gifts, and get to the post office early in the season to avoid long lines.

Maintain routines.

  • Maintain bedtime routines for children to ensure they get enough rest.
  • Prepare children for special outings or events by telling them who will be there and what kind of behavior is expected. Give them advance warning if they have to dress up so they will be less likely to resist.

Everything in moderation.

  • Decide on a reasonable budget for holiday expenses. Handmade gifts, baked goods or thoughtful cards are great ways to express holiday greetings. “It pays to scale back the grandness of the holiday and attend to the relationships that make it a positive time of year,” Phelps says.

Teach children there is more to the season than presents.

  • Share religious or family rituals to give meaning to holidays and instill in children a sense of identity and pride in their heritage.
  • Create family memories by reading special stories, singing songs or doing something special that the family enjoys.
  • Give children homemade gift certificates that can be redeemed for breakfast in bed or a special outing with mom and dad.
  • Parents should give of themselves and set a good example for their children. Encourage children to donate used toys or books to local charities. Parents should let their children know they are proud of them when they do good deeds.
  • Let older children know that they may not get everything on their wish lists.

Include children in holiday preparations.

  • “Parents may let the kids play while they do everything perfectly, but then the children aren’t truly participating in the celebration of the season,” Phelps says. Allow children to make decorations or cards, or let them help bake and wrap presents. They will stay busy while their parents get tasks done quickly.
  • Although children should be involved in holiday preparations, they should not go along on long shopping sprees. They will get tired and bored. As their behavior deteriorates, the parents’ stress level will rise.

Take time out.

  • Exercise regularly, eat right and schedule down time every day. Getting the proper rest is important to maintaining the proper frame of mind at the holidays, Phelps says. “Parents should use their own social support network,” he says. “For example, friends and neighbors might share baby-sitting duties so that for one night, they can have time to complete holiday errands or just relax.”

For more Positive Parenting Tips or for information on Positive Parenting classes, check out Children’s Hospital’s Web site at

Melanie Tush Finnigan, 412-692-5016,

Last Update
June 17, 2008
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Last Update
June 17, 2008