Parenting·5 min read

Holiday ‘Magic’ is Just Mom’s Invisible Labor. Here’s How to Cope.

Creating holiday “magic”’ puts pressure on busy parents. A therapist shares advice on how families can prevent and reduce holiday stress. And bring on the joy.
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
December 16, 2022

It’s no secret: creating holiday “magic” leads to holiday stress for parents. In a 2021 poll, 20% of parents said holiday stress was negatively affecting their family life. And nearly twice as many mothers said they had “high” levels of stress compared with fathers. From late-night present wrapping to Amazon shopping between work calls, there’s a lot of pressure to make everything perfect. 

But this year can be different — and less overwhelming. Because here’s the truth: You don’t have to do all. the. things. And we’re here to help. But first, here’s how to set yourself up for success this holiday season. 

How can I prevent holiday stress?

Check in with yourself before you add anything to your “to-do” list. Are you doing these things because it’s expected of you? Or because it brings you joy? (Yes, Marie Kondo style). Note: We know it isn’t always black or white. And sometimes it makes more sense to do something because it’s expected of you if that’s what works in the situation. We all have to pick our battles. 

“You have a cup, and it has all the energy you possess in it,” said Tami Zak, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Grow Therapy. “So watch what's coming out of that cup: your job, parenting, being a partner. How much energy is left for the holidays? Wouldn't you want that to be the things that bring you joy?“ 

To help you focus on the joy…

Manage expectations 

For yourself and others. 

Be realistic about how many gatherings you can attend, how much you can spend on gifts, and if dragging your kids to every local light show is worth the hassle. Set boundaries when necessary.

FYI: It’s OK to be honest with your kids regarding presents. It’s a good opportunity to teach them about the value of money and responsible spending

Ask for help

Because even those who have their sh*t together need help. Whether that's from a family member, BFF, or larger community. (Even parent FB groups can be full of resources.)

Pro tip: If you have a partner, they should be stepping up. Sit down with them and go through the to-do list. You can pick things that interest each of you (yes, planning a Jingle Jangle movie night counts). And then see what’s left. If there’s something on there that neither of you cares about, take it off the list. 

And don’t forget… social connections help us manage stress. If it helps, go out for a hot chocolate date with your BFF. Schedule a virtual night in with your mom group. Or have a phone chat with your favorite cousin while you're wrapping presents. 

Practice saying “no” 

This is hard. We know. But try to make it about you. Zak suggests saying something like: 

“We’re overwhelmed this year with all of our obligations, and we're making decisions right now about what we're attending. I hope you can support me on that.”

You can practice this by starting with smaller obligations (aka: saying “no” to your work potluck or the neighborhood’s cookie bake-off). 

PSA: This is especially important for introverts in your family who can get overwhelmed by even the thought of small talk at a holiday party. 

Doing what you can to prevent holiday stress will only take you so far. Which is why we need to know what to do in the moment. 

Once I’m feeling overwhelmed, what can I do to reduce stress?

First, try to stick to your regular routine, even if you’re traveling. Ask yourself: “What are things that keep me centered and keep me going?” A cup of tea? Listening to a favorite podcast? Breathing exercises? 

When that stress starts to creep up, Zak says you can… 

Move your body

It’s good for your body and your mind (thanks, endorphins). Current gov guidelines recommend that adults do moderate physical activity for at least 1.5 hours a week. That’s a little more than 20 min a day. That may not be realistic during this time of year. But if you usually have a 30-minute walk in the morning, try making it 10 minutes. Or five. You may have to plan ahead or bring your family along. It’s worth it. 

Practice gratitude

Gratitude can help you rise above the stress and be present (which again, we want).“Recognize that it’s a lot, and it’s stressful. But be grateful that you have all these things in your life,” said Zak. Say thanks for your family, your people, and your resources. This will give you some perspective. 

Real talk: This can be especially difficult for parents who are struggling. But even on the hardest days, thinking of who you’re thankful for can help train your mind to look for the good. And make you more resilient. Here are some ideas for practicing gratitude.  

Embrace imperfection

“I would step back and I would ask, ‘Is this good enough or am I trying to achieve something well beyond that? What are my expectations?’ Good enough is OK. Not everything has to be perfect,” said Zak.

Sometimes, failed attempts to have a “special night” with the family end up being the best stories (once you can lol about it). And remember, your kids will have a magical holiday even if they’re just in their PJs all day playing with toys. 


Keeping things in perspective can help parents manage holiday stress. And remember: the season is short. If we get caught up prepping for the “next thing” on the list, we often miss what’s right in front of us. Instead, try to reset, enjoy the moment, and appreciate the memories you’re making… even the chaotic ones.

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