1 in 5 Parents Say Holiday Stress Negatively Impacts Child’s Seasonal Enjoyment

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Key Takeaways

  • 1 in 5 parents believe that their child has unrealistic expectations for the holidays, while 1 in 4 admit that they set highly unrealistic expectations of themselves during this season.
  • 1 in 5 parents note that their stress levels negatively impact their child’s enjoyment of this season.
  • These findings illustrate the possibilities for parents to actively reframe the holidays for their kids.

Despite the enjoyment the holidays can bring, it can also come with stress to meet expectations. While the children were not assessed, a C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan Health found that 1 in 5 parents believe that their holiday stress levels negatively impact their children.

This poll included feedback from over 2000 parents of children and found that 96% say that the holidays are generally a happy time for them, but 18% describe their stress as high during the holidays.

With how much parental stress levels impact their children's enjoyment of the holidays, it may be worthwhile to consider how families can reduce their stress during this season.

Understanding the Research

This nationally representative poll found that only 12% of fathers reported high stress levels during the holidays, while nearly double that (23%) of mothers reported the same, and more mothers than fathers considered each aspect of the holiday season as very likely to cause stress for them.

In terms of specific reasons why, 31% of parents found extra shopping and holiday tasks stressful, while 30% noted keeping family healthy to be stressful, 29% found household finances stressful, 23% noted planning for family events to be stressful, 22% found making holiday meals stressful, and 14% noted criticism from family about holiday plans to be stressful.

Researchers found that 20% of parents believe their child has unrealistic expectations for the holidays, while 28% feel they have unrealistic expectations of themselves, as 20% of parents noted that their own stress level negatively affects their child’s enjoyment of this season.

Parents who considered their holiday stress to be high were more likely to report a negative impact for their child, compared to those who described it as medium or low.The use of binary gender was a limitation of this poll.

Holiday Stress Can Be Reduced

Educational psychologist and founder of The Global Institute of Children's Mental Health, Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, LPC, BCN, says, "The holidays can be a stressful time for parents and kids too but there are simple ways to lower stress levels so the whole family can enjoy it."

Capanna-Hodge explains, "The first step in countering holiday stress is to recognize what your stress triggers are, and for parents, the lack of routine and added holiday responsibilities may just be too much."

It is why Capanna-Hodge recommends that parents consider either adjusting what they can control or making time every day for stress-reducing activities such as exercise, prayer, music, breathing exercises, etc. 

Capanna-Hodge notes, "As much as we feel overwhelmed right now, we aren’t talking about the science-backed ways to calm the brain and body that counter stress and that is what parents need."

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, LPC, BCN

When parents feel hopeful and capable of implementing small changes to take control of their stress they are not only more likely to continue but their children reap the benefits too.

— Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, LPC, BCN

Given how overwhelmed parents can feel over the holidays, Capanna-Hodge highlights how they need simple ways to counter stressors big and small, and having tools such as listening to music, exercise, scheduling time alone, prayer, and asking for help is accessible for reducing that stress.

Capanna-Hodge explains, "Data from the Mott Poll aligns with the trend toward higher levels of stress for families. Consistent with the APA Stress in America Survey™, 70% of families saw an increase in stress during the pandemic and the holidays are an additional worry."

Since holiday stress is unlikely to go away on its own, Capanna-Hodge recommends taking care of mental health every day as a priority. "Reducing stress doesn’t have to be that hard; don’t overthink it and just make time for those simple ways to calm the brain and body," she says.

Capanna-Hodge explains, "The Mott survey found that one in five parents say their holiday stress level negatively affects their child’s enjoyment of the season and when parents experience compounded stressors, it is hard to hide that stress from those you love and it can and does affect children."

Even though parents recognize the negative thinking and language that stress often brings, Capanna-Hodge notes they may lack the tools to shift their behavior to counter that. "When parents feel hopeful and capable of implementing small changes to take control of their stress they are not only more likely to continue but their children reap the benefits too," she says.

Mothers Bear the Brunt of the Work

Brittany A. Johnson, LMHC, says, "After reading this study and article readers will have an increased understanding around what contributes to increased stress around the holidays."

Johnson explains, "This study did a good job of discussing the top reasons parents, especially mothers have increased stress that can negatively impact the holiday. Based on this study and others, mothers generally are the ones organizing and doing the shopping and other activities for the holiday."

It helps to acknowledge and understand that both parents and children have unrealistic expectations on how the holidays should go, according to Johnson. "The way marketing impacts and increases the stress around making it magical should be noted," she says.

Johnson highlights, "This study does a good job of discussing what is already known, but also does a good job of categorizing the things and areas that add to the stress. "Marketing and other consumer-driven outlets add to the stress by making parents and kids feel that more energy and magic is required for you to enjoy the holiday," she says.

Brittany A. Johnson, LMHC

The way marketing impacts and increases the stress around making it magical should be noted.

— Brittany A. Johnson, LMHC

Parents Can Adjust Holiday Norms

Neuroscientist and clinical social worker, Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, CEAP, says, “As clinicians, many of us see an increase in anxiety and sadness around this time of year. It is often more about the financial aspect of gift-giving and family activities."

Weaver explains, "The takeaway readers should have is that parents really do have an influence over how their child(ren) experiences the holidays. Expectations lead to disappointment and unrealistic expectations can cause parents, especially mothers, to feel like a failure."

To navigate this, Weaver recommends the importance of parents asking themselves who they may be performing for. "Is it the unmet needs of your younger self, is it society’s or culture’s definition of the ideal parent, or did your child(ren) learn and come to expect this?" she asks.

Weaver highlights, "Your influence has less to do with buying the right gift or creating the perfect experience. What really makes the difference is talking honestly with your children about navigating their thoughts and emotions on the inside even if things on the outside don’t go according to plan."

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, CEAP

Is it the unmet needs of your younger self, is it society’s or culture’s definition of the ideal parent, or did your child(ren) learn and come to expect this?

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, CEAP

In this way, Weaver notes that parents may all have some degree of power and influence over reducing the stress on themselves, which will support their children's enjoyment. "The one thing I wish the public would know about this issue is the strong influence of nature and nurture," she says.

Weaver explains, "Having a propensity towards stress is one of those things that can be passed down through the generations. If our great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother had a stressed nervous system, we are likely to carry that same trait."

What activates that trait are events, so Weaver notes that when you combine attempts to have a normal holiday experience in the abnormal times of COVID-19, it can exacerbate stress. "Sometimes just knowing that we are not in this alone is enough to help us to take a deep breath and relax," she says.

What This Means For You

As this research poll demonstrates, the holiday stress of parents can reduce their child's enjoyment of the holidays. If you are concerned that your behaviors may be contributing to such challenges over this season, it may be worth exploring small changes. It is possible to enjoy this season without navigating such unrealistic expectations.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Neece CL, Green SA, Baker BL. Parenting stress and child behavior problems: a transactional relationship across time. Am J Intellect Dev Disabil. 2012 Jan;117(1):48-66. doi:10.1352/1944-7558-117.1.48

  3. JSTOR Daily. The gendering of Holiday labor.

  4. Forbes. How Holiday marketing uses Christmas feels to get you buying.

  5. Ising M, Holsboer F. Genetics of stress response and stress-related disorders. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2006;8(4):433-44. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/mising

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.