Realistic expectations key to finding joy during holidays

Imagine it's mid-December and we're fighting our way through the first snowstorm traffic jam of the season. We turn on the car radio to the sounds of holiday music. The song playing is telling us, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." We can't help but ask ourselves, "Is it?"

If this is at all familiar to you, you are not alone. Many adults feel the weight of the world around the holiday season, but how does that weight effect the children in our lives?

It's easy to set high expectations for holiday time. The stress levels build in an endless swirl of should dos, must dos, have to dos, it's only right to dos and on and on. Many have been fortunate to have had wonderful holiday seasons in their childhood, which heavily influences their expectations to repeat that experience year after year. The irony is that sometimes those holiday memories may not have happened as we remember it, so in essence, we're trying to duplicate a fantasy. An extremely difficult task to replicate for both the adults, but especially children - and it's a definite stress builder!

When adults, children and teens are surrounded by unrealistic expectations it becomes a very stressful situation, and there is a connection between stress and unhealthy decision making. It's natural for someone who is stressed to seek relief the easiest and quickest way. Perhaps that solution includes a glass of wine to make it through a holiday party, a Xanax before heading out to shop or an Ambien to clear the mind and fall asleep. Media too often present drug use as an appropriate and effective way to relieve stress and many times make a joke of it. We need to remember that a "holiday cup of cheer" is different than a drink to "take the edge off" ... and children certainly notice. So, how do we manage the stress around the holiday?

First, remember there is no "perfect" holiday. The American Psychological Association addresses expectations with this: "Have realistic expectations - No Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or other holiday celebration is perfect. View inevitable missteps as opportunities to exercise your flexibility and resilience. A lopsided tree or a burned brisket won't ruin your holiday - it will create a family memory. If your children's wish list is outside your budget, talk to them about realistic expectations and remind them that the holidays aren't about expensive gifts."

Second, while there is no shortage of tips to prevent holiday stress, feeling compelled to put all those tips into practice may actually cause stress. Setting and having realistic expectations is an excellent stress prevention strategy for not just the holiday but life. By setting realistic expectations as a first step and teaching the children and teens in your life to do the same, you will help develop a valuable skill.

Some worry that setting realistic expectations discourages big ideas and dreams. Lofty goals and aspirations are not incompatible with realistic expectations. One can still wish and work toward a certain outcome while not expecting it.

For one of the many resources about holiday stress, please visit The American Psychological Association's Holiday Stress Resource Center at

Have a wonderful realistic-based holiday season!

- Betty Barsley-Marra is a senior health educator at Candor Health Education in Hinsdale. This column was first published Dec. 18, 2020.