For starters, it's important to recognize if your child is stressed. Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D., author of The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success, says some signs of holiday stress may include:
1. Stick to routines
We know things are crazy. You're going to this and that place to shop for gifts, attending parties, meeting Santa, planning meals and cooking, and possibly traveling to be with loved ones (or doing the hosting in your own home). But do your best to maintain some consistency. Children experience comfort through a routine, so as much as possible, stick to the same naptimes, mealtimes, and bedtimes that are usual for your child, says Jared Heathman, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Your Family Psychiatrist in Cypress, Texas.
2. Give a heads up
Once you've figured out the family's plan for the day, provide your child with a schedule. "Older children can read times on a simple list, but young children can benefit from a picture schedule indicating what order they'll be asked to do certain things," says Celeste Coffman, a Licensed Professional Counselor in Florence, Alabama. If you prefer not to create an actual schedule, it's still a good idea to let your child know in advance when specific things will happen. For instance, explain that the family will watch a favorite holiday movie after dinner. Or let her know the two of you will wrap Dad's gifts in the morning after he goes to work. "Simply being in the loop to prepare for what's coming is a huge stress reliever for children," Coffman says.
3. Schedule in downtime
When coming up with your day's events, pencil in some downtime. "Even a 15- to 30-minute break can help kids recharge and decrease the likelihood of emotional or behavioral problems later on," says Zachary Adams, Ph.D., a pediatric clinical psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, in Indianapolis. So set aside time to read, play games, talk, or even laze around with electronics.
If you notice your child's anxiety building during other times of the day, let her take an impromptu break. Coffman says it's a good idea to explain to your child beforehand that if she becomes overwhelmed, she can find a quiet room, take deep breaths, ask you to talk outside, or listen to music in headphones to help her feel better.
4. Let your child vent
Give your child permission to come to you if he needs to get something off his chest—even if it's only to complain about how Aunt Maddie keeps pinching his cheeks. Paper and pen (or crayon) also come in handy. "Give your child paper to draw or write about whatever is making him feel sad, mad, or upset," Dr. Reznick says. Allowing your child to express his feelings gives him a chance to release them, and labeling the emotion ("You feel sad because Uncle Johnny is away at the military") can help your child better understand what he's feeling.
5. Work up a sweat
Exercise causes the brain to release endorphins, the body's feel-good chemicals, which can reduce stress, Dr. Reznick says. So make sure your kids get lots of physical activity during the day, whether that's going for a walk, playing in the snow, or putting on music and dancing around the house.
Don't forget the exercise when you're traveling. If your child is expected to be in the car for more than two hours (or even less for younger kids), Coffman suggests incorporating a hearty dose of physical activity at intervals throughout the day. "For example, jump on a mini-trampoline before leaving, play a game of tag at a rest area, and lead the family in jumping jacks when you stop for gas," she says. Letting your child stretch her legs and burn off some energy can keep crankiness at bay.
6. Just say "no"
A major way to tame some of the craziness associated with the holidays is to skip out on some activities, Dr. Reznick says. You don't have to attend every gathering, and you and your kids don't have to see every single member of your family. Another option is to not drag your child along all the time. You and your spouse can take turns running errands while the other watches the kids. Or you could ask a family member or hire a sitter (use one your children already know; introducing a new one during this hectic time can cause even more stress).
7. Keep yourself in check
"Children of all ages look to their parents for cues about how they should think, feel, and act," says Dr. Adams. So make sure you manage your own stress. "Parents need downtime during the holidays just like children, so carve out some time, even if only a few minutes, to do something calming or enjoyable for yourself," Dr. Adams says. Setting plans and making lists can help break down overwhelming holiday tasks into less stressful, more manageable ones, he adds. Also, practice healthy coping skills, such as writing in a journal, meditating, exercising, or talking to a supportive family member or friend. Another tension-reliever is to simply enjoy the holidays. Take in the lights, sing some carols, and smell the wonderful aromas, Dr. Heathman says. Soaking in the holiday cheer can make the season more enjoyable for you and your child.