Photograph by Ana Sladojevic / Alamy
Photograph by Ana Sladojevic / Alamy

Everything’s different this year—so why not holiday stress?

How to help your family deal with 2020’s special seasonal anxiety

All the shiny wrapping paper in the world can’t cover up what’s coming for families this holiday season: canceled traditions, travel restrictions, quarantines, nasal swabs, and plenty of disputes over masked gatherings versus mass gatherings.

Throw in a kid who can’t hug grandma, and you’re looking at something more like the least wonderful time of the year.

The darker, shorter days of November and December often usher in an uptick in stress levels, especially for folks navigating complex family dynamics and tight budgets, says psychologist Michi Fu, a professor at California’s Alliant International University. Unfortunately, the ongoing health and economic crisis will almost certainly exacerbate these problems.

According to a report from the American Psychological Association, 67 percent of Americans say their stress has increased over the course of the pandemic. Nearly one in five adults say their stress level is higher than it was at the same time last year, with parents in particular pointing to their children’s school situation as a key source of stress.

Experts worry that the combination of the usual holiday stress and pandemic-related anxiety is a prescription for a very unhealthy holiday, for both parents and children. But by acknowledging that this season has its own unique challenges and focusing on things you can control, Fu says families can keep things from spiraling.

“Try to keep things in perspective,” she urges. “In the larger scheme of things, this is one holiday.”

What stress does to a body

When humans sense that something’s not right, our brains and bodies jump to attention. “It triggers feelings that are normal, almost functional, from an evolutionary perspective,” Fu explains. The “fight or flight response,” which once helped us produce bursts of speed to escape predators, floods our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones tell our heart rates to increase, and our blood pressure to rise.

But what works well for lion evasion isn’t as helpful for handling the stress from say, a protracted email argument about holiday travel and mounting credit card bills. Instead of returning to our normal state, the stress lingers, setting off a domino effect of symptoms.

Ongoing stress can lead to heart disease, obesity, and other chronic issues. It can cause people to hunch up their backs and necks, resulting in musculoskeletal issues, as well as affect digestion, which can cause heartburn, bloating, and appetite changes. In both men and women, stress decreases sexual desire and the ability to conceive. Stress can even summon acne breakouts and rashes, and make your hair fall out.

Although people might think of stress as an adult problem, kids can feel it, too. Younger children often regress when dealing with stress—for example, a potty-trained child who’s now back in diapers. They also tend to act out, says psychologist Rachael Krahn, associate director of outpatient, school-based, and psychology training for Minnesota’s Washburn Center for Children. “They’re running on empty, so meltdowns are more likely,” she says.

For older kids, self-isolation is another sign of stress (as well as a symptom of depression) that Krahn is seeing more of in her patients. “I hear a lot of ‘meh’ from my teens,” she says.

Dealing with kids’ holiday stress

Kids have plenty of reasons to feel stressed about the holidays this year. They might be missing large family gatherings or holiday activities. They could be sad over not being able to see friends, and anxious about never-ending remote school situations. Or they could be stressing over very adult concerns, such as financial or health issues.

Psychologist Andrea Bonior’s key piece of advice for helping children deal with their stress over the next two months? Empathy.

“Remember that they’ve already had a ton of loss—of structure and of activities,” says Bonior, author of Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover the Life You’ve Always Wanted. “Let them have their feelings. Let them ask ‘Why can’t we’ questions 10 times in a row.”

Moms and dads often feel like they need to know the perfect thing to say in response, but Bonior encourages parents to focus on listening. “It’s not about fixing the problem,” she adds. “It’s about hearing them.”

What you pick up either from talking or playing with your kids might surprise you, Krahn says. Maybe you thought everyone had finally adjusted to the “new normal” at your house, but it turns out your kids are still struggling with the idea that the holidays this year won’t mean a trip to grandmother’s house. To calm them down, Krahn suggests deploying deep breathing exercises and movement games.

Above all, she says, reassure them: “Feelings come and go, and this will pass.”

Bonior says that parents shouldn’t candy-coat the stressful holiday situation for children or act as if things will be fine; instead, own it. “Let’s acknowledge that this stinks,” she says. “And let’s be creative in what we can do instead.” She recommends brainstorming new family traditions, like finding a board game you can play online with cousins or a way to volunteer together.

Dealing with your own family stress

Family conflicts over holidays are nothing new—but this year’s additional stressors will look a little different. Relatives may hold opposing views on the safety of indoor festivities. Guilt trips over travel—or lack thereof—might arise.

To defuse the tension, don’t think of your family as opposing factions, Krahn says. Instead, blame the root cause. “Take the personal out of it and say, ‘COVID-19 is making this so hard,’” she suggests.

Bonior emphasizes the need to be proactive about family self-care to keep stress levels from getting too high. “I’m a fan of working together,” she says. “Say, ‘I’m going to do a meditation before bed, want to do it with me?’”

To focus on the positive, Krahn says it can help to start a daily gratitude practice for your family—for instance, saying what you’re thankful for at every dinner, not just one single meal in November. Healthy diets, good sleep habits, and regular exercise will also help reduce stress for everyone in the family.

That said, sometimes parents just need a break, “like sitting in the bath or binge-watching some shows,” suggests Purdue University associate professor Zoe E. Taylor, who studies risk and resilience in youth. But carving out “me time” can be especially tricky for single parents or those who once relied on now-vulnerable grandparents to share childcare responsibilities.

What can help is forming a “double bubble” with another family who has a similar level of risk tolerance, Taylor says. Adults can share childcare duties, kids have playmates, and more folks can squeeze around the dinner table, helping ease some of the loneliness of the holidays.

At some point, though, stress levels are sure to bubble over. And that’s OK. Bonior says it can provide an opportunity for parents to model good behavior when apologizing for reacting in anger. “We need to have grace and compassion for ourselves,” she says. “Our kids need to see us messing up, and how we handle awkward conversations when we mess up.”

That includes coming clean about when you’re stressed, which is better both for you and your kids. “Emotions can be contagious,” Krahn says.

Adds Taylor: “Acknowledge that we’re doing the best we can. The biggest message is be good to yourself and good to one another.”