Make your holidays a bit more merry

by Dr. Krystal White
Contributing writer

It happens almost every year. Just when you start looking forward to the Christmas season, your stress level kicks into high gear.
If you feel like a scrooge, you aren’t alone. Statistics demonstrate that the holiday season is often far from merry. Occurrences of child abuse, spousal abuse, suicide, ER visits, relationship dissolutions and financial setbacks sharply rise between late November through the first week of January.
Our desires to be jolly, set against a backdrop of idyllic scenarios of holiday utopia, intensifies expectations. The constant pursuit of perfection — the lights strung just so, the turkey braised just right, the gifts chosen with clarity and meaning — can leak the jolly out of anyone.
Here’s how to handle the holidays:

Do Less
We have gifts to purchase, parties to attend, food to prepare and packages to mail. No wonder we are on overload. To handle the holidays, pick your to-dos wisely — only three holiday to-dos a week. By choosing only three holiday activities a week (from parties, to shopping to baking) you will prevent burn out. Remember to learn to say “no” to the internal desire to do more. Busyness equals stress. If we are always doing and never playing, then we won’t have enough mental energy left over to recognize that we don’t need more presents or more potlucks or parties, we need more time. Especially time with loved ones.

Change Your Expectations
Christmas has become about being on the lookout for the gift that will make them really happy, about the recipe that will super satisfy, about the services or the parties that will extremely connect us. Our perfectionism, on top of increased work load and stimulation, often increase our perceptions of negative emotions. Both adults and children will be more “touchy.”
Instead of trying to avoid negative feelings, acknowledge them. Expect to feel sad, expect more tantrums and fights, and expect irritability. During this season, give more grace and kindness to yourself and family members. Instead of focusing on the negative, try to spend time focusing on what you do have, rather than what you wish you had. Before arguing with others, take a five-minute “breather” — maybe what you need is more rest, and not more fighting.

Give Time, Not Gifts

Remember that most people, particularly children, have difficulty paying attention to more than two things at the same time. To help children notice their gifts, and ultimately appreciate them more, keep them busy and happy all day, and show positive behavior. Follow these guidelines:
» Limit gifts to 12 per child at the most, and break gift openings to three separate times: one on Christmas morning, after lunch and after dinner. Start a new tradition. “Each time I ring the bell, it means it’s time to open more gifts!” This will also motivate children. When they start to get “antsy” you can say, “I wonder when that bell will ring.”
» Have at least three hours between gifts. Children need time to play with each toy and have a “break.” Having three hour breaks decreases the chance they will become overstimulated and gives parents a chance to rest as well.
» Only put gifts that are about to be opened under the tree. This will allow your child to focus on what they have right now and not on what they are not getting in the future.
During the season, remember that families value experiences more than gifts, and we remember experiences and the feeling of Christmas more than the gifts we receive as we age.
Take a moment this holiday season to resist the fanfare, and the “oughts” and “shoulds,” and truly spend time together with your loved ones. No stocking stuffers or secret Santas required.
(Dr. Krystal White is a pediatric psychologist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center who specializes in community assets and developmental disorders.)