Q.  The holiday season always leaves my family stressed and deflated. The kids have a case of the “gimmes,” I feel the burden of trying to visit out-of-town extended family and when the holidays are over, we all seem disenchanted. How can we turn it around this year so we feel happy and less stressed?

A.  Where did these children’s “gimmes” come from? Did you set the expectation of many gifts by overdoing presents in the past? Now’s the time to correct that and teach them that Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza is for others as well as for themselves, and there is a “reason for the season” beyond presents.

Let them know what they can reasonably expect this year. It could be one big present and two small ones or a certain monetary amount spent on each child. Some families with small children have one present from Santa and one from parents. Some follow a formula like one present the child wants, one the child needs, one present to wear and one to read.

In addition to receiving, there is the joy of giving, which is something you can help your children experience. Maybe you have extra chores your children can do to earn money to buy a gift for a friend or a toy drive. Another option is for them to make gifts or holiday cards for others.

Here are some more ideas for bringing joy to your holidays:


  1. Decide what you must have to make it feel like the holidays: homemade cookies? Latkes? Decorations or a tree? Involve the children in whatever it is—baking or decorating, for example. Doing things together makes these moments memorable and brings you closer together. As for cookies, I think some store-bought varieties taste better than the ones I make.


  1. Focus on spending time with each family member in relaxing activities like reading, taking a walk or watching a favorite holiday movie.


  1. Create new traditions like caroling with friends, volunteering as a family or delivering a holiday meal.


  1. Decide—along with your spouse or partner—which parties or other activities you want to say “yes” to, so you’re not overscheduled.


  1. Ask yourself how much you enjoy traveling to see extended family and the time spent with them. If the answer is “not so much,” you have options; you could tell them you would like to have a simple holiday at home this year. If you want to be especially considerate, ask them how they’d feel about your skipping the holiday at their house. If you do enjoy time with them, think about ways you could make the trip easier and more enjoyable.


  1. Talk with family members about how you all might make your lives simpler and more enjoyable. Yesterday, I spoke with a friend who expressed her delight in becoming a minimalist. She’s stopped buying things she doesn’t need and reduced her belongings. How many of us buy more than we need just because something is cute or on sale? Sometimes we buy holiday gifts we know adults on our list don’t need or we’re not sure they’ll even like, just so we can finally get through with our shopping. The gift of an IOU for a later experience like a trip to the ball park or the water park might be more fun.

The idea is for you to take charge of the holidays by curbing the impulse to spend more than you should or do more than you want. Don’t let commercialism or obligations exhaust you with their expectations.

Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.

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