Managing Your Holiday Stress

ImageNew ideas to try this season

by Anne Teeter Ellison, EdD

THE HOLIDAYS ARE GENERALLY FILLED with great expectations and dreams. We all have a vision of what constitutes the perfect holiday, the perfect family, the perfect child, or the perfect spouse. Sometimes these visions come close to reality, other times they are way off.

When your hopes and expectations match your reality, it is generally because you have come to embrace how AD/HD affects you and your family during the holidays. This article offers some tips, strategies, and reflections that might help you in the coming weeks.
First, you need to identify your stress points. What has shattered your dreams for holidays in the past? Here are some classic examples.

Pain from holidays past

Many adults and families affected by AD/HD have memories of holidays that were painful, stressful, and anything but cheerful. The time you drank too much and screamed at the kids. The time your spouse was angry, yelled at you and the kids, and ruined everyone’s day. The time your child with AD/HD was so wound up that she broke your favorite serving dish, the one you inherited from your grandmother. Or maybe your family was dysfunctional and holidays were filled with anger, hostility, and/or chaos.

These memories may affect how we experience the holidays today—we may dread them and not even know it. We may still be angry with relatives for wrongs committed years ago, for hurt feelings that have never been resolved.

Creating that “perfect” holiday

The holidays were made for Martha Stewart (or maybe the holidays made Martha Stewart)! She makes everything by hand: those lovely velvet stockings that are filled with homemade candles, strawberry jams, potpourri sachets, and bags of chocolate-dipped apricots wrapped in silver tissue paper. She always looks great and always seems to have more ideas, talent, and time than we could ever hope to possess.
The stress to create these perfect homemade goodies may be further fueled by your mother, mother-in-law, or sister-in-law who always makes at least five kinds of holiday cookies for all her dearest friends, including the postman, the hairdresser, and the cashier at the local grocery. Or these pressures may stem from your interactions with that one friend at work who seems to have everything under control. She’s already finished her shopping, wrapped and mailed everything to out-of-town relatives and friends, and she’s also hosting the office party! You are a mess and you haven’t even started shopping for your immediate family.

Our dreams, visions, and fantasies about the perfect holiday include those in which everyone is beautiful, happy, and fulfilled. Commercials show families that can’t wait to see each other, and homes that are filled with greenery, sparkling lights, and presents wrapped in gold and red. Everyone is standing around a candlelit piano singing holiday songs with eggnog drinks in colorful mugs. These fantasies have been fashioned by savvy Fifth Avenue types who encourage us to buy their products, but often leave us feeling sad or depressed because these scenes simply do not exist in our homes—nor in most others either!

Buying everything on their wish list

We want to give everyone what they want—like the expensive computer game, CD, video, leather jacket, athletic shoes or other popular item they’ve been dying to get. We run around at all hours of the day and night trying to find the one toy or game that is understocked at all the stores. Television ads have been running for months, but of course no one in town has any left, and your child can’t live without it.

Last-minute shopping

Then there is the moment when you remember that one special gift your son, daughter, or husband looks forward to every holiday. You get into your car at 4 PM on the eve of the big day knowing that the mall closes at 5. You are a good thirty minutes from the store that carries the “must-have” item. You speed in and out of traffic. Your heart is jumping out of your chest. Your head is pounding from all the stress. You begin to swear at the little old man in front of you to move out of the passing lane. You are never going to make it!
Been there. Done that.


How can you avoid these stressors this holiday season? Here are some tips that might help.

1. Plan ahead.
Get your calendar out and make a schedule of important timelines and activities. Give yourself some wiggle room. Even the best-laid plans generally have to be revised.
2. Create gift-buying and other holiday traditions that don’t bankrupt your future.
Make a gift budget and don’t spend a penny more than you set aside for each member in your household.
3. Avoid excessive drinking.
Decide ahead of time how many alcoholic drinks you are going to have and stick to your decision. Drink sparkling water with a twist of lemon or lime before and after a glass of wine.
4. Avoid excessive eating.
Eat healthy snacks before a party to avoid filling up on sweets.
5. Do something nice for someone else.
Participate in a charitable holiday event in your community. This is a perfect time to involve the whole family. Your church, temple, mosque, office, or community may have a gift or clothing drive. Share your good fortune with others who have less.
6. Seek out professional help if things are really too overwhelming.


Don’t be afraid to try some new ideas either.

  • Play hide-and-seek with small inexpensive gifts. Hide a handful of holiday treats wrapped in tin foil or colored tissue.
  • Create a holiday tree with the kids.
  • String popcorn or cranberries. Hang them outside when the holidays are over. The birds love them.
  • Glue things onto a Styrofoam ball—cranberries, old costume jewelry, velvet ribbons.
  • Make a paper chain out of colored paper.
  • Create a holiday family album. If you don’t have a great camera, buy a few of those disposable cameras for each family member.
  • Use the computer to make or download holiday cards and pictures.

You might be thinking, “This woman must be kidding! Living with AD/HD during the holidays is just too stressful. It’s too exhausting. These ideas will never go over with my kids or my family. Just reading this article stresses me out. My kids think doing things together stinks. We argue about everything. The last time I planned a family project, it was a total failure.”

TRY WHAT MAKES SENSE TO YOU AND YOUR FAMILY. Try only one new thing at a time. If it doesn’t work, have a good laugh! Remember the holidays don’t have to be perfect, but shouldn’t they be fun? 

Anne Teeter Ellison, EdD, is professor emeritus of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A former member of CHADD’s professional advisory board, she is also a past president of CHADD. She is a member of CHADD’s board of directors and serves on the editorial advisory board of Attention magazine.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the December 2001 issue of Attention magazine. Copyright © 2001 by Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from CHADD is prohibited.

Posted in: Holidays