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5 Tips to Thrive as a Family at the Holidays

5 c’s ages 11 years - 18 years ages 5 years - 11 years ages 6 months - 5 years family mantra holidays routine Nov 01, 2023

The holiday season is fast upon us, and for busy families, that often means an added layer of stress - or perhaps it feels more like an avalanche of pressure.  From Halloween costumes to sort out, Thanksgiving meals to start planning, and the looming task of holiday shopping, it’s no wonder this time of year can feel like more of a challenge than a celebration.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to eagerly anticipate the holidays and help your family thrive during this exciting time of year?  In this week’s post, I’m going to share with you five tips to help you do just that.  Take a slow, deep breath, remember that this really can be the “happiest time of the year,” and get ready to learn five tips to help your family thrive this holiday season.  Be sure to download my freebie called 5 Tips to Thrive as a Family at the Holidays! to remind you of these tips throughout this busy holiday season.


As we walk through each step, I’ll point out where the 5 C’s come into play in the different steps.  If you’re not already familiar with my 5 C’s parenting framework, learn more at Check Yourself: Are You an Intentional Parent?


  1. Set Reasonable Limits

A primary reason the holidays can feel stressful is because they feel overwhelming.  There’s so much focus on the holidays in most cultures that we’ve gone out of control on planning events, creating holiday programs, and emphasizing opportunities for family fun.  Listen closely: Don’t feel like you have to say yes to every event you’re invited to.  Choose which local family activities best suit your family this year; maybe it’s watching the local production of The Nutcracker this year and attending the downtown holiday parade next year.

Similarly, pick and choose what requests for help you will say yes to this year.  Maybe your schedule is lighter than usual this holiday season, and you want to help organize the class holiday party at your child’s school.  Or perhaps you’re feeling tight on time, so you won’t volunteer in person but will still be able to donate to the class teacher gift this year.  
Respecting your time and setting reasonable boundaries is essential for keeping holiday stress in check and helping to ensure that you’ll enjoy the activities you decide to take part in.


Another thing that can help in this department is deciding where to focus your energy this year.  Is it going big on decorating the house, taking the plunge and joining the family holiday card tradition, throwing a holiday party, or something else?  You might choose up to a handful of significant holiday activities, but set one as a focal point so you know where to put more of your energy.  Think of it as taking a college course for a grade vs. taking it as pass/fail.  You’ll feel overstretched if you go for a home run on every activity you tackle, but if you just do well enough at most things and exceptionally well at one thing, you’ll likely be pretty satisfied with that outcome.  So set yourself up for success, and Check Yourself, to be sure you’re setting reasonable limits this holiday season.

Once you’ve prioritized your holiday season plans, get organized.  Create a schedule that outlines all the upcoming events and responsibilities.  It may also be helpful to create a budget for holiday expenses, such as gifts and food, to avoid overspending.  Then, start delegating.  Decide who can contribute and in what way.  Even little ones can be helpful during the holidays with projects like decorating homemade ornaments and putting their special mark on holiday cards.  Make sure every family member has a clear understanding of what needs to be done and when.  
Getting organized and delegating responsibility will help minimize any last-minute stress and ensure that everything runs smoothly.


  1. Establish Meaningful Traditions

When your kids look back on their childhood, they won’t remember every single thing about the holidays, but they will recall the activities you did year in and year out.  If you already have family holiday traditions selected, that’s great.  Keep it up, and be sure to talk them up.  Mention at the dinner table how much you’re looking forward to watching your family’s favorite holiday movie together.  Or spend a Saturday writing letters to Santa that you’ll mail together to the North Pole.  Relish in those experiences that are helping to form a positive association between family and the holidays for your kids.  You’re using Communication, both verbal and non-verbal, to show your kids how much you enjoy their company and being connected with them as a family.  One day, they’ll eagerly anticipate replicating those traditions with their own kids, and adding some new ones of their own.


If you don’t yet have family traditions in place, make this the year you select some.  You don’t have to get the matching pajamas, wait in line to see Santa, unveil a new holiday book every day in December, and every other adorable holiday tradition out there.  Just choose a few and stick with them.  Here are the things our family does every year: First, we throw a Tacky Holiday Sweater party.  It’s totally cliche but makes for such a fun and lively evening, and we’ve been hosting one since before they became such a fad.  Our event is adults-only, but I count it as a family tradition because the kids are so involved in helping me prepare, from picking out tacky hors d’oeuvres (oh yes, the food matches the party theme), setting up for the event, and munching on all the leftover goodies.  And one day, I anticipate this will become an event that brings them all back home together.  Once they start dating, marrying, and having families of their own, they may not often be able to come home for the actual holidays, but we can try to tempt them here for the pre-holiday festivities.


If you’re finding it tough to choose your family traditions, take a poll and ask everyone in the family what have been the most meaningful activities for them in past years.  The second tradition our family has is to pick a night to fill our thermoses with hot cocoa, load our pockets with candy canes, and drive around town to see the holiday lights.  We follow the same route as the local holiday trolley, but we do it our way, low-key and focused on enjoying time with just our family.


Third, we open one gift on Christmas Eve, and it’s always an ornament.  Each year, we buy ornaments for the kids to decorate our tree and to build their collection for one day when they have a tree of their own.  The ornament usually represents something significant from their year - like a golden snitch from the year they read Harry Potter or a little baker with a rolling pin from the year their skills in the kitchen really took off.  Every family builds their own holiday traditions.  Fun as each one is, the real impact is in making it a priority to repeat them together every year to show your kids how important time spent together is around the holidays.


  1. Sprinkle Fun Into Your Normal Routine 

All these festive activities and fun family traditions are great, but it’s important to remember how vital Consistency is to a child’s daily routine.  Especially during the busy holiday season, make it a priority to focus on getting your child to sleep at a consistent time and following their bedtime routine as much as possible.  Refer back to Master Your Child’s Bedtime Routine and Why Consistent Bedtimes are Important at All Ages for tips related to those important topics.  Well-rested kids and well-rested parents are primed to thrive during the holiday season.  If the holiday parties keep you out late, try to keep it to one night up late at most per week for the kids; consider hiring a babysitter to cover certain events if you’re planning to attend more parties.  You don’t want fatigue to put a damper on what should be a holly jolly time of year.

Consistency is also important in regard to holiday eating.  Between all the delicious holiday desserts offered at the grocery store this time of year, treats at various holiday events, and family baking traditions, it’s easy to load up on sugary and fatty foods during the holiday season.  Keep in mind that your child’s mood is closely related to their food intake.  To promote stable, positive mood, try to maintain their normal diet filled with protein, fruits, and vegetables, while adding treats here and there.  There’s nothing like a post-sugar high crash to put a damper on a holiday event.


  1. Keep the Focus on Giving 

A family goal that often comes up at the holidays is raising grateful children.  This can be a real challenge in a commercialized society, with advertisements left and right telling your kids what toys they should put on their wish list.  Get intentional in your parenting by taking a number of steps to communicate to your children that as nice as it is to receive gifts at the holidays, your family focus is on giving and that it feels good to do nice things for others.  Here are a few things you can do to focus on giving at the holidays:

  • Donate to a local charity like Toys for Tots and pick out the gifts together.
  • Volunteer as a family at your local soup kitchen or food bank.
  • Select a theme (artwork, Lego creations, etc.) and have siblings make gifts for each other.
  • Put thought into the gifts you buy for friends and family members, and involve your kids in the planning process.
  • Make homemade gifts for friends and family members, including kid’s crafts and group cooking efforts.  The kids can even help deliver them locally.
  • Make a big deal out of appreciating the gifts you receive.  Our family likes to clap when gifts are opened.  Appreciating that each one is special can shift the focus away from craving lots of gifts.
  • Have your children write thank you cards or make thank you phone calls to acknowledge and express appreciation for gifts from others.

One important note from my Choices & Checkpoints category is to consider developmental milestones in how you communicate with your kids about the gift-giving process.  Children are inherently egocentric; they truly can only see situations from their perspective in their first few years of life.  The seminal work of psychologist Jean Piaget in the early-mid 1900s showed us that preschool- and early-elementary-aged children cannot shift to another person’s perspective in the way that an adolescent or adult can.  When they sit directly in front of another person, blocking their view of the TV screen, they don’t do it to be mean; they simply don’t realize what they’re doing.  So when buying Toys for Tots, don’t expect younger children to understand fully.  Rather, focus on one repeated response like, “These toys/books are for children who won’t be getting as many gifts as you for the holidays.”  Also, be sure to reassure them with a reminder that you already have great presents for them. 


  1. Spend Time With the Ones You Love

We often feel pressure to see everyone at the holidays - from second cousin Joe to long-lost Uncle Harry.  As much as possible, try to distribute visits to/from family and friends throughout the year rather than cramming it all into the holiday season.  If you do choose to see people at the holidays, think about how much time you want to spend with each person.  Perhaps you can combine seeing certain people whose visits tend to cause you more stress; you might attend or host one big, extended family dinner rather than three smaller events in the same week.  Bigger events can take some of the pressure off of you to connect with people who may trigger holiday stress.  My sister loves to adapt an environmental phrase to such social situations by saying, “Dilution is the solution to pollution.”


Another helpful tip is to place time limits on visits, suggesting to in-laws that you’re so grateful they can visit, and a 3-night stay would be just perfect this year.  Also, remember that it’s not just family who can cause holiday social stress.  Has work been stressful lately?  Maybe you skip the office party this year and focus on family time instead.


Spending time with the ones you love isn’t always easy, though.  Do you ever find that even the slightest misbehavior from the kids during this season is infuriating - as though you want them to constantly be on their best behavior so you can cross a million things off your To Do list and they can go to the next fun holiday event and get overloaded with treats?  And then you feel bad about using any sort of discipline because, well, it’s the holidays!  This is a fabulous time to use your Family Mantra.  Learn how to create a family mantra here: What’s Your Family Mantra?  A family mantra is an excellent way to consistently communicate core family values to your children.  It can also come in very handy as a type of gentle Consequence.  When your child is having less than ideal behavior, hold up your hand, giving both you and your child a moment to take five deep, calming breaths.  Then run through the words in your family mantra (ideally, one for each of your five fingers); ours is the Emmerson Five: Happy, Kind, Respectful, Helpful, Gentle.  Stop on the finger that seems to be causing them trouble at the moment - the fourth finger for Helpful if you asked them to do something and they refused, or the fifth finger for Gentle if they’re being too rough with a sibling.  Often, that’s enough of a gentle nudge to get behavior back on track - especially if you remind them about the next fun event coming soon for everyone with good behavior!



Take-Home Message

The holidays have the potential to be a wonderful experience for the whole family, but often, they end up feeling stressful and overwhelming.  Today’s tips presented five steps you can take to help your family thrive this holiday season.  Take control over your holiday schedule by setting reasonable limits, focusing on meaningful family traditions, and maintaining as much consistency in your family’s routine as possible.  Focus on giving to help cultivate an attitude of gratitude in your children.  And be selective in who you spend time with during the holidays to maximize your holiday cheer.  Be sure to download my freebie called 5 Tips to Thrive as a Family at the Holidays! to remind you of these tips throughout this busy holiday season.  Get started today by deciding what holiday activities you will prioritize this year and which family traditions are the most meaningful to you and your children.  Wishing you a very merry holiday season with your family!

These tips for thriving at the holidays utilize aspects from all 5 C’s of my parenting framework (see Check Yourself: Are You an Intentional Parent?).  To view more posts in this category, use the category search menu on the right of your screen.  Keep up the good work on your amazing parenting journey!

P.S. If you enjoy learning about how the 5 C’s can be interwoven into your family life, as in this holiday season example, check out my Learn With Dr. Lindsay page to find more ways to continue learning about my 5 C’s parenting framework.  I look forward to educating and empowering your parenting practice.


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