1. Shop alone
Don’t drag kids on stress-filled holiday shopping expeditions. Instead, leave them with a friend or your spouse, and go shopping alone, when possible. Better still, shop online and let kids take part in the gift wrapping. Or trade gifts after the holidays with close friends or relatives. If kids are eager to be part of the holiday shopping ritual, get yours done first, then take them in the middle of the day on a weekday for a leisurely (and pleasurable) experience.
2. Let your house be real
Don’t waste precious family time by obsessing over cleaning and decorating. Instead, choose the decorations that are most important to you—wreaths, holiday lights, a special menorah—and focus on those. Keep it simple, let kids help, and make it fun. As for cleaning, lower your standards a notch: A happy, laughter-filled home is more inviting than dust-free mantles.
3. Stick to routines
It’s hard when kids are out of school, but maintaining your daily schedule as much as possible can actually lower everyone’s holiday stress level. A familiar routine gives kids a sense of order and comfort, and allows them to sink into the holidays with more enjoyment. Have at least one meal together to create a sense of structure. Breakfast is often the best option. A family breakfast is also a good time to explain what’s on the agenda for the day. And create “bookends” for every day, a ritual you do first thing in the morning, like snuggling on the couch, and last thing at night, like reading in bed.
4. Pare down gifts
Show kids early in life that holidays aren’t about how many toys you get. Let them keep a running list of what they want throughout the year; then, closer to the holidays, have them choose the top three to five gifts they want (knowing they’ll likely get more from grandparents and relatives). Make presents instead of buying everything, and involve kids. An afternoon spent making candles or cranberry chutney to give as gifts will stay in your child’s memory for years to come.
5. RSVP no
Parties provide their own special brand of holiday stress. To sidestep that problem this year, choose invitations carefully, favoring kid-friendly events. If you have to go to a dressy cocktail party or dinner, don’t take the kids. It’s the perfect time for them to go to a friend’s house. Don’t schedule more than one event in a day; make sure kids have ample down time; and set a strict limit ahead of time for how long you’ll stay at each event—an exit strategy is critical.
6. Control sugar
If kids are munching on gingerbread all day, you can’t really blame them if they crash and burn. Keep sweet treats at a minimum. Set out bowls of nuts or popcorn instead of cookies. Fuel kids with a high-protein snack—jerky, eggs, hummus—before parties, even if there will be food at the festivities. Agree ahead of time about how many treats kids are allowed, and don’t forget about sugar-filled beverages such as juice, eggnog, and hot chocolate. Have kids stick to sparkling water instead.
7. Focus on tradition
Create traditions that smooth out holiday stress by inspiring kids with a sense of wonder, magic, and meaning. They can be as simple as sharing “gratitudes” around the table, or as elaborate as organizing a food drive. Do what works for your family. If you’re crafty, make a special ornament every year. If you cook, make fruit preserves. A nighttime star-gazing hike or a holiday snowshoe day are great for active families.
8. Take care of yourself
Connecting with your kids is important, but take time to connect with yourself as well, or you’ll be drained, cranky, and less able to enjoy your family. Sneak out for an afternoon walk; plan holiday shopping with a friend who revives and inspires you; lock yourself in the bathroom and take a long, leisurely bath. Make an afternoon siesta one of your family holiday traditions—for 45 minutes, everyone goes to his or her room to read, draw, nap, or play quietly. Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself rested, well-nourished, and connected. You’ll better be able to help your family enjoy the magic of the holidays.