Holiday Stress Management Techniques for Parents

Last Updated Dec 22, 2010 6:51 AM EST

Four days until Christmas, and not a single gift is wrapped. A half-decorated tree lists dangerously starboard, and the snippy e-mails keep coming from bosses around the country. When my husband innocently asked me this morning if we could get some wreaths for the house, it took all my willpower to keep from reading him the riot act. My resolution to plan ahead and have less stress this holiday season? Time for plan B.

I did an online scan for instant stress management techniques. Some of them work; most don't seem to cut it or aren't practical. I spoke to a college friend, Tricia Lipani, Ph.D., who's a child psychologist, and I e-mailed another friend who taught health class to sixth graders. (I'm at the level of their clientele.) Here's the list we came up with of stress management techniques that work.

Smell the Pizza: This one comes from the health teacher, and it reminds her students to breathe deeply. "Breathe in slowly through your nose as if you're savoring the smell of pizza, hold it for a few seconds, and breathe out slowly through your mouth," she says.

I've never been able to get the relaxation breathing going. I was an abject failure at Lamaze. But the pizza metaphor works for me. To make it work, my friends say, you have to practice it at times when you're not stressed out. You can't expect these techniques to be effective when you're under a lot of pressure if you've never tried them before.

Call Your Spouse: A two-minute conversation with a person in your life you love can be quite calming. Assuming he does not ask you to get wreaths. On a good day, this is how that conversation goes:

You: "Hi, I'm stressed out."

Spouse: "What's up?"

You: "I have to do blah and blah and blah and I don't know how I'm going to get it all done."

Spouse: "Well, should we quit our jobs and move in with your mother?"

You: "I guess it's not so bad."

Spouse: "How 'bout I pick up the kids this afternoon and you go out for a run?"

You: "I was hoping you would say that. Thank you. That helps."

Make a To-Do List: Add big things and small things, and cross a few of the small things off as soon as you can. That feels good. Then devote 10 minutes to one of the big things. Just start it.

Anticipate Annoying Conversations: You can pretty much guarantee that Uncle Joe will walk in on Christmas afternoon and ask you when you're going to have another baby. Because that's really helpful, right? So, Lipani advises, rehearse ahead of time your reaction to the infuriating lines you know your relatives will spring on you. Whether it's your grandma commenting on your weight or your cousin exclaiming about her 6-year-old, "Joey is reading at a fourth-grade level! How's your daughter doing?" you know what you're going to hear. Think in advance of a way to deflect and change the subject. Smell the pizza. And remind yourself of what you're doing: My goal is not to be Supermom. Never was, never will be. Come to think of it, maybe I should pause, breathe, and give myself the same pep talk before I open any more e-mails.

Hug a Young Child: Hold your squirmer on your lap for 8 seconds or so, if he'll let you, and you'll get an instant reminder of why you bother: to make it fun for the little people. Just don't look too closely in his ears, or you'll need to add another item to your to-do list. That's a project that can wait until after Christmas.

Hire a babysitter who has her driver's license: Two hours, $20. You can get a lot done in two hours. And the sitter and the kids can go pick up the wreaths.

Photo courtesy Seth Werkheiser, CC 2.0
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