Family-Friendly Ways to Handle Holiday Stress

I was really looking forward to putting up the tree this year, but things went wrong quickly. We had brought up our boxes of Christmas ornaments from the basement. While my husband and I strung lights on the tree, Emma, our four year-old, quietly unwrapped each ornament and piled one after another into a little mountain, breaking the special starfish I’d bought to celebrate our beach wedding. She’d littered our dining room floor with small box lids and tissue paper when Liam, our seven year-old, ran by, slipping and banging his hip on the wall.

After his crying subsided and I began to clean up the tissue paper, Emma and Liam both started aggressively trimming the tree, grabbing the ornaments in some kind of speed-decorating competition. Within the space of five minutes, three glass balls had shattered on the floor.

Ali Breen, mom to Danny, SSDS ’11 and Molly SSDS ’14, keeps a “memory Jar” throughout the year.  Every one in the family contributes to it. She writes: “At the end of the year we sift through it . . . It’s a great way to reflect on how far we’ve come, where to go next, and doing it all together as children, as parents, as siblings, as a family.”


I took a deep breath and asked my husband to put on some gentle Christmas music. By this time, the pizza was late and the kids were grabbing fistfuls of tootsie rolls from the pantry. To my horror, my husband’s rock and roll Christmas playlist came up full volume. Within minutes of surrendering their candy, the kids were fighting again. They were standing on either side of the mountain of ornaments both holding a Lenox “baby’s first Christmas” rattle, screaming in each other’s faces. I ran over to them, grabbed them each by the wrist and yelled, “Stop it! Both of you! Stop it right now!” I took another deep breath, redirected the kids, and said to my husband, “I hate Christmas.”  He replied, “Can we just fast forward to January?”

If you see a bit of your own holiday experience in this story, you’re not alone. After polling teachers and parents at Silver Spring Day School, many admit to feeling the stresses as well as the joys of the holidays. Lauren Lee, mom to Maisie in Pre-K and Andrew in Ms. Rebecca’s 3’s admits, “I obviously have stress in December. It seems that no matter how much I get done, I am still scrambling in the weeks leading up to Christmas.”  Is it possible for parents of preschoolers to have a peaceful, meaningful holiday season?  As a gift to myself and to my fellow frazzled parents this December, I decided to seek guidance from the community of SSDS parents and teachers. My question: how do you find peace and connection as parents and teachers during the busy holiday season?

Prioritize: Do what you love, and let the rest go

A common theme for parents and teachers alike was: learn to prioritize what you truly love and what brings you real joy during the holidays, and let the rest go.  Ms. Emily, veteran Pre-K teacher at SSDS and mother of five says, “I try to consciously pick the events and activities that my kids and I enjoy and jettison the rest. I realized pretty quickly, for example, that I hate going to the mall and waiting in line for a picture with Santa.  . . . But we do enjoy decorating cookies together, and so that has become a tradition at my house.”

Lauren Lee, mom of Maisie in Ms. Catherine’s Pre-K, and Andrew in Ms. Rebecca’s 2’s shares her favorite advent activity: “Every morning we unwrap a book and read it together.  It’s almost always a Christmas-related book. Then, we listen to Christmas music from Norway (my family heritage) while we eat breakfast. “
Jane Meier, mom of Noah in Ms. Veronica’s 4’s agrees, “I try to pick a few things that are important to me and let go of the rest. I’m creating the holiday traditions that matter to me and not necessarily the ones I grew up with.” April Fulton, mom to Sawyer in Ms. Lesley’s 4’s finds solace in the nightly ritual of lighting the menorah.  “Lighting the candles with the kids at sundown each night gives us a moment to pause in between busy day and night. Did we get there every night? No. But the menorah on the kitchen counter is a reminder to take a breath, slow down, refocus.”

Give your time: the best gift of all

Gifts, gifts and more gifts.  Are our children happier for them?  According to Dr. Christine Carter and Rona Renner from the “Happiness Matters” podcast, our “materialist culture” is constantly sending the message: “want more; get more . . .  more is good . . . you should have it all!”

This need to consume is especially powerful at holiday time.  And yet according to Carter and Renner, research has shown time and time again that “materialism doesn’t lead to happiness.” Often, they argue, parents’ need to overspend at holiday time comes from our own guilt, sometimes founded and sometimes not, of not being able to give our children what they really want: our time and relaxed, loving attention.

Pre-K teacher Ms. Catherine shares her wisdom: “the most precious gift I can give my students is my time with them. Presents are great, but it seems that my students are most excited when they are getting quality time connecting and playing with the adults in their lives.”

Pre-K teacher Ms. Catherine describes her revelation of the value of giving her own time to her students in her own classroom this year: “The other day I was gently reminded by a student what is really important during this crazy busy time of year—time. I was playing with the kiddos on the playground when little hands were wrapped around me in a gigantic hug. My Pre-K friend looked up at me and said, “Ms. Catharine, I love you and playing with you!” I realized that the most precious gift I can give my students is my time with them. Presents are great, but it seems that my students are most excited when they are getting quality time connecting and playing with the adults in their lives.”

Create opportunities for your child to give

Several parents and teachers talked about creating time for their child to give instead of get at holiday time, and the value this now has in their family. Ms. Emily shares: “I have worked with each of our kids to help them make a little present, often a simple food gift, that they divide up to give to everyone … It’s a different kind of joy for them than opening presents, and it teaches them a little empathy to take on the gift giving role.”

Ms. Emily may be on to something here. Studies on gratitude from The Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California suggest that the act of giving may increase gratitude, a quality that has been linked in recent years to levels of happiness. Research convincingly shows that “grateful youth, compared to their less grateful counterparts, are happier, more satisfied with their lives, friends, family, neighborhood, and selves. They also report more hope, engagement with their hobbies, higher GPAs, and less envy, depression, and materialism.”

There are many ways to give. Rather than a traditional advent calendar, local mom and real estate agent Betty Batty adopted a “25 days of giving” practice for her family. Some days the acts of giving are simple: a cake pop for a friend at a play date, or some homemade cookies for neighbors.

Kasha and Chris Hayes, mom and dad to Asher in Ms. Veronica’s 4’s class, wanted to reach out to the local community, and signed their family up this year for the D.C. Diaper Bank’s “Family Friendly Volunteer Hours.” Dad Chris reports, “The kids had so much fun working with new friends to prepare diapers for distribution to families in need.  I felt good about directing their energy toward helping others.”

For a list of thirty simple, family friendly ideas for giving during the holidays, check out the website

It’s easy to feel guilty during the holidays—for not doing enough for others, for not being better organized, for not feeling the elusive “joy” the season promises. But after hearing from our wise teachers and fellow parents, I have learned something useful.

Next year, before Thanksgiving, I am going to set aside a little time to meditate on and plan for a holiday season that aligns with my values. In the meantime, I will try to remember that, like our preschoolers’ artistic endeavors, parenting is also a process. We don’t expect perfection from their artwork, and we shouldn’t expect perfection from the art of parenting either: we can be colorful and messy sometimes, too.


~By Liz Webster Duke, mom to Emma (Ms. Lesley’s 4’s) and Liam (SSDS ’14)