Tips for Handling Holiday Stress

By Susan Ragsdale and Ann Saylor, coauthors of Brain Boosters for Groups In a Jar®

Tips for Handling Holiday StressAh, the holidays! They’re meant to be a meaningful time of celebration, joy, family, and for some, a deepening of faith traditions. And yet, they can fall short of these ideals when expectations clash with reality. Unfortunately, this can lead to unnecessary holiday stress.

In our classrooms and after-school programs, we don’t always know the backstories of our students. We don’t necessarily know who celebrates Christmas or Kwanza or Hanukkah. We don’t know which students will not even have a holiday celebration due to financial limitations or for other reasons (maybe a parent has passed away or a parent is serving in the military). Additionally, as we do know, the holiday season can highlight the haves and the have-nots. And that spotlight can shine a painful awareness on those in the have-not category.

Our personal lives can be stressful, too, as experience, expectation, idealism, guilt, consumerism, giving, spirituality, and commercialism all clamor to have their voices heard in the merry song of “’tis the season.”

How did a time intended for celebration become such a tangled mess?

Stop the chaos. This holiday season, give your students (and perhaps yourself) the gift of learning how to manage holiday stress. It’s a gift that can last a lifetime. Here are a few tips to start with.

Identify What Stresses You
Is it that grandma always pinches your cheek when she sees you? Are you afraid that your cousin will push you around when no one is looking? Is it because you know that your family will get into it at the dinner table over politics or some other sore subject . . . again? Is it that you feel like you have to buy everyone a present or be seen as lame? Is it that going to extra activities night after night is throwing off your routine?

Stress is an individual experience. Identify what stressors pop up for you during the holiday season. Name them. Make a list.

Brainstorm Healthy Ways to Deal with Stress
Talk about ways students can successfully deal with their stressors. Remind kids that they have the power to choose how they respond and that there are things they can do for themselves to stay sane and healthy. They may not be able to stop a big brother from taunting them or an “Uncle Eddy” from bringing up their most embarrassing moment for the thousandth time and laughing hysterically as if it were the first. But they can determine how they will respond. That choice makes a world of difference when things get under our skin.

For example, if you have an Uncle Eddy, here’s one approach you might choose: When he brings up that embarrassing moment, you decide to interrupt him and tell the story yourself, laughing first. In that moment, you have decided to own and accept your embarrassing moment and claim your story. In becoming the storyteller, you might steal Uncle Eddy’s thunder, making it not much fun for him to tell it anymore. At the very least, you have decided to accept yourself as you are—good and bad—a powerful decision to take your power back.

Have kids look at their list of stressors and brainstorm ways they can deal with each situation so that they don’t simply fall into patterned behavior.

Note: There are some situations in which the stressors are more than kids can handle alone. They need help. You may be their starting point as you have this conversation with your students. You may see indicators of a real fear of bullying or of homes in real need of food or assistance. When these bigger issues loom, it’s up to you to follow your school’s or agency’s policies to ensure student safety and aid.

Find Balance
Handling stress doesn’t have to be guesswork. Research gives us clues for how to maintain our own personal balance. These strategies work for all ages any time of the year.

As kids look at their lists of ways they want to respond to stressors, ask them to think about their personal values:

  • What do they value about the holidays?
  • What do they value about their time with friends, family, traditions, and places of worship?
  • How can they focus their time and energy on their values during the holiday season?

Ask, too, about the activities and things kids do that bring them satisfaction. How can they keep the things that “fill” them in their routine throughout the holidays?

For example, if Miranda likes to sketch each day, she should intentionally make time to do that during the holidays and not let that go. If Carlos likes to have an hour of being quiet, he should make sure he has that time. These personally satisfying routines help maintain our well-being and are great aids for minimizing stress.

Just Be Here Now
Another well-talked-about stress reliever is being able to relax at any given moment and in any given place.

Look at these thoughts: What does she want for Christmas? Will I get what I want? What if I don’t get anything? Do I have enough money to buy a gift? Will Dad be home in time for Christmas? Who will be at the dinner? Will there be enough food? Do I have to go to that event? Will I feel left out?

These thoughts are full of anxiety and fear, and they are oriented on the future. Meditation, breathing exercises, and body scans are a great way to bring the focus back to the present moment. Learn to listen to your body, relax tense muscles, breathe, and stay focused on how you want to be right now. We have unlimited power to choose how we want to respond in any given moment. We choose our thoughts and actions, and in doing so, we can deescalate stress. Self-talk works:

  • I will smile, breathe, and simply be lovely.
  • I don’t have to respond to her taunts.
  • That’s on him, not me.
  • I choose being well with myself.

Choose Meaningful Relationships
A gift of the holiday season is time spent with family, neighbors, members of a spiritual community, and friends you love. Rewarding relationships—ones in which you feel loved, supported, and cared for—can help you de-stress. Laugh and enjoy one another. Invest time in those friendships that sustain you.

Take Care of Your Body
Nutrition and exercise are, as always, premium strategies that keep you healthy, happy, and sane. Don’t overdo the eggnog or overload on the sugar that’s readily available everywhere you turn!

May it be a happy and healthy holiday season for you and the kids in your care!


Ann SaylorSusan RagsdaleSusan Ragsdale
and Ann Saylor are the best-selling authors of Great Group Games: 175 Boredom-Busting, Zero-Prep Team Builders for All Ages and seven other books for educators and youth workers. Nationally recognized trainers in positive youth development, service learning, and play with purpose, they partner with schools and after-school programs for professional development. Learn more through their website and blog and follow them on Twitter @TheAssetEdge.

Brain boosters for Groups In a JarSusan Ragsdale and Ann Saylor are the coauthors of Brain Boosters for Groups In a Jar®.


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