How to deal with family stress during the holidays

This is the second year I am writing about stress and the holidays.  Let’s face it; one could fill thousands of books about how to deal with the stress of the holidays.  However, I intend to be brief and just give you a few paragraphs to think about.  My philosophy in life and in my practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist, is simplify, simplify, simplify.  Let’s not make anything more complicated or stressful then it needs to be.  To combat family stress during the holidays, I am suggesting that you create a simple plan, communicate the plan and then execute the plan and don’t forget to refine the plan.

Let’s get started.  Take out a piece of paper or create a new document on your computer.  Quickly write down the names of the people who stress you most around the holidays.  Then write down what is going on when the stress occurs.  Do some brainstorming with yourself to come up with some little changes that can help with this stress.  Be creative and remember that no idea is a bad idea it’s just that some ideas can work better than others.  For example, your sister insists on exchanging gifts and never gets you what you ask for, even though you exchange lists.  Maybe you can suggest that you all pool your money this year and give to a Storm Sandy relief charity.  Then if that goes well, you suggest doing something similar next year.  You should also plan for self-sabotage – doing those things that ensure that you don’t succeed at the original goal.  Oh yes, even when we are trying to do something good for ourselves, it is inevitable.  Use that information to fortify yourself when you see yourself slipping.

Here are some examples:

Who stresses me most? When does this happen? Ideas: How will I sabotage?
My sister When she insists on exchanging meaningless gifts Suggest donating to a Sandy Relief charity I might buy a gift in case my sister does anyway
My mother Insists on us spending too many holidays at her house Tell her how important time with just your core family is to you I might cave and tell her we can fit in a few hours at her house
My husband Never wants to tell his mother that driving to their house is too much Work with husband on how to tell his mother that having a day around the holidays when there is no traveling would work best for his well being I might let him talk me into the fact that we can’t break tradition

Now it is time to communicate this change.  This is most likely the hardest part about family stress.  How, after years of status quo, do you manage to change things?  One way I use and coach clients to use, is that this is about you and your wellness.  If you remember this, you might be able to find a new normal around the holidays.  A great line is ‘I am sure you will understand’, and then fill in what you want to communicate.  To follow my example above you can say “I am sure you will understand how I can’t conceive exchanging gifts this year when people have lost so much.  This is very important to me and I want us to combine our money for a gift to a charity for Storm Sandy relief.”  Who wants to be the one that goes against a statement like that?  Not me.  Remember what you are trying to create.  This is really getting back to what is most important about the holidays for you and what you want for your children.  Oh yeah, don’t forget to practice.  Think of what they might say.  Keep the message the same.  Don’t defend yourself.  Keep saying, “this is for me and my well being, I am sure you will understand”.

Now that it has been communicated, are you really committed to this change?  What will you do if you start to slip back into the “same old” mode?  What if you tried to communicate your change and it wasn’t heard?  Will you just be okay with it?  Or will you communicate your needs in a different way to be heard?  Now, start to implement this change.  Make it happen.  Again to follow the same example, you could send out emails to collect the money from the family for the charity.  Or find a charity you have researched and email family members to let them know this is the one that is the best fit.

Time to refine.  Daily, at bedtime if that works, take out a piece of paper and write down how you think you are doing to make your plan a reality.  What more needs to happen?  Who else needs to be your ally?  Who is still stressing you the most?  Can you avoid your exposure to them?  It is most important that you remember your own well being and health.  There doesn’t need to be so much stress.  It is your choice.  You can start new traditions now.  And if it is still stressful sometimes, remember to take time for yourself.  Exercise as much as possible, eat as healthy as you can, and practice other stress management techniques.  Check out my 5-minute meditation on YouTube to help you relax at night., scroll to the bottom, click on the video and enjoy!  Happy Holidays!

Lenore Pranzo, MA, LMFT, Cht, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Certified Hypnotherapist in Redding, CT with a private practice in her home and an office in Trumbull.  She is a mother of 6-year-old twin boys. She works with couples, teens, groups and individuals on issues including substance abuse, fertility, anxiety, depression, marital strain, and stress management.  Her website is and phone is 203.274.0158.


Keeping it simple in the life of overscheduling

A month into the new school year is a good time to feel settled in and back in the groove. However it can also be a time that you realized maybe, just maybe there are too many darn things to do! There’s soccer, karate, dance, gymnastics, football, music, and many other things to fill in every free moment. When does homework get done or a little family time? For those with preschoolers, maybe it is also too many playdates or storytimes. How does this happen so fast? It could be that we live in Fairfield County and sometimes we are valued by what we do or accomplish and not on our quality time. If this is sounding familiar now is the time to review the values and the lasting memories you want for your family.

It is a challenge raising responsible children versus overstressed children. It is important that children grow up to be responsible for their actions, work and behavior within reasonable limits. Think about how you grew up; what worked and what would you have changed about the choices you were given? Would you have liked to spend more time with your parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents? Would you have liked more activities? Were the activities you participated in ones that you wanted to do or your parents wanted you to do? Too many, none? How did it help your self-esteem and sense of belonging? What kind of family life do you want for your children? What combination of scheduled family time like game night, movie night, meals together? What rituals and traditions? How about out of the house activities? Does it always have to be sports or how about interests like the library, chess club or the arts? How do you balance everything and avoid running around from one thing to the next, barely able to eat dinner, going to sleep late and scarcely squeezing in homework?

Now it is time to plan. Take the time to streamline all of the activities in your family’s life and continue to check in with your children to see how stressful their schedule may be. How do you streamline all of the activities? Start with the answers to the above questions. Ask yourself and your family when they are the most happy. Then ask on a scale of 1-10 how happy each activity makes them. Are there outside expectations or pressure in doing an activity? What can wait for the summer when there is more time? Is one activity a season better? Check in with each member once a month to see how the new plan is working. Just working together to prioritize activities tells your children that you are more interested in what makes them happy rather than just “doing things”. As they review their schedule each month they will become more aware of how activities affect them. When they get older you may expand the criteria for an activity from “makes me happy” to “I enjoy being with others”, “makes me proud”, “I feel like part of a team”, “I feel healthy” or other things they value.

Remember what works for one year will need to be reevaluated the next. One child might be able to handle and thrive on many activities while another might not want more than one. Continue to discuss with your children and help them prioritize. Most importantly remember to schedule and find time for family. Family dinners are perfect for communicating about the day. Family movie nights with DVDs and popcorn go a long way as well. Remember do you want a Webster definition of family; a group of individuals living under one roof, or do you want a group of individuals who spend time together and have great memories of that time?

Lenore Pranzo, MA, LMFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Redding, CT with a private practice in her home and is a mother of 4 year old twin boys. She works with couples, teens, groups and individuals on issues including substance abuse, fertility, anxiety, depression, marital strain, and stress management.