(Chris Keane/BLOOMBERG)

The traditional gatherings bring special burdens to parents who have to negotiate between the needs of their children, their partners, their siblings and an older generation that usually gets rather grabby with the grandkids this season.

“Thanksgiving might be the first major holiday when [young couples with children] start breaking out of entrenched family-of-origin traditions,” Stacy Notaras Murphy, a Washington psychotherapist and advice columnist wrote to me after I asked for her insight.

She said her clients are vexed by the same questions: “Do we still travel to my parents’ house? Do we bring small children into a nominally baby-proofed home for a long weekend? Do we invite everyone to visit us instead?”

Murphy went on to point out that this is not just a young family’s problem — I can attest to that — and discussed issues that tend to come up for families year-in-year-out. Below are excerpts from her advice on handling holiday stress.


“I advise couples to rundown all scenarios first, gathering input from extended family members (don’t assume you know what they want, they might surprise you), then make the final decision between the two of you. That way neither person is painted as a dictator when you explain the choice to a wider audience.

By talking with one another first, couples can be upfront about the potential consequences of any option and decide if they can live with them in advance ...

New parents often expect a lot of themselves, they expect to experience the holidays like always, just with a baby on their hip this time. Instead of strategizing for how to make the holiday perfect, it may be more useful to name more basic or realistic goals (e.g. enjoying time together, marveling at how everyone is reacting to the new baby).

Sometimes just talking about it — putting words to those goals and explaining them to another person — can be enough to snap us out of the unconscious thoughts that raise our anxiety (e.g. ‘Hmm, when I hear that out loud it sounds silly. Maybe it’s not so important that I stay up all night making three different kinds of pumpkin pie.’)

 As we make decisions about where or how to celebrate the holidays, it’s important not to put ourselves (or our spouse) in a position of being triggered by the old, unfinished business of childhood. [For instance,] choosing a hotel instead of that air mattress in the den or deciding to avoid alcohol or choosing to limit your exposure to dropping in for dessert, rather than spending the whole day on edge. 

But a moderate amount of stress may be unavoidable in the moment...

 When we feel stress take over in this way, we have to get grounded. This is an excellent space for an attuned spouse to help. He notices that she is being triggered by something and holds her hand, looks into her eyes and reminds her, ‘You’re still you.’

The only way for this not to come across as confrontational is for the couple to have strategized for this in advance, otherwise it’s just another criticism she wasn’t looking for. Just as you plan for where to sleep or whose crib you can borrow while you’re visiting, we can plan on asking our partner to ground us in the moment with some quick mirroring, validating touch, or a reminder that all will be well....

I have noticed that clients who have repeatedly fallen into old patterns when visiting relatives seem to have new resolve to approach things differently once they have kids of their own. Perhaps the stakes are higher when we know we’re being watched by little eyes, soaking up clues for how to act in this new environment. Parents who get clear about their own issues on the front-end are less likely to hand similar baggage to their own kids.

This demands a more ‘conscious parenting’ approach. We are only conscious when we are calm, careful with our words, and connected to ourselves in the moment.”

Calm, careful and connected through the holidays? That’d be a new one for me. Sounds like an early resolution.

Do you have a plan to prevent or manage holiday stress? How has having children changed the holiday dynamic?

Related content:

2011 Holiday Guide

How to overcome 3 fears of holiday entertaining