By Dr. Jules Nolan
CSCOE Peace of Mind Partner
As we move into Christmas break, I want to recognize how exhausted we all are. Covid, distress in our communities, family and personal loss, and the continuing pressures to parent at such an extraordinary time weigh on us. During these next two weeks outside of school, let’s take a step back and be intentional about bringing less pressure, more comfort and more compassion to our families.
I would like to offer some mental health tips to restore your energy, connection, family relationships and inspiration.
1. Stop ‘shoulding.’
Albert Ellis, a pioneer psychologist in examining how our beliefs and assumptions affect our mental health, directs us to examine our beliefs about how life “should” be. His message teaches us that our “shoulds” and “musts” can lead to our own distress. When we practice self-compassion around our expectations, we set ourselves up for success. During the holiday season, think of what you do that doesn’t enrich your relationships, make your family stronger or build empathy. Practice letting go of things that you feel like you “should” do, but in the end, do not fortify you.
2. Ask for help.
Our children do best when they know that they are an important part of our family, but NOT the centerpiece of it. They have as much responsibility for the smooth running or our family as we do. Ask them to participate, contribute and shore up the family in ways that make them feel competent and needed. Task them with everything from chores, to offering their time to play with siblings, to helping “put on” the family holiday. When children feel important in the family not for their achievements and accomplishments, but for their participation in service to the family, it builds their self-esteem and feelings of efficacy.
3. Operate at 75% capacity.
Think of what you and your family could accomplish at 100% maximum effort, and then scale back to 75%. Dr. Lisa Damour, psychologist and best-selling author, encourages us to think about our schedules in this way. Baking, homemade gifts, visiting all relatives, a clean and decorated house, perfectly wrapped presents, attending all Christmas events, keeping schedules, eating vegetables, getting enough sleep and exercise — think of all these areas of performance and scale back to completing at 75%. Good enough is good enough. This helps us let go of the “impossible perfection” standard and teaches our children that self-compassion and reasonable expectations are our priority.
4. Know what sticks.
We tend to think that our children will best remember the expensive gift, a terrific surprise or a perfectly executed meal. In reality, they tend to remember most fondly the goofy game, watching a favorite holiday movie together, baking a family treat, playing in the snow, or any funny holiday disaster. When we open ourselves to whatever unfolds in our family holiday and accept it as exactly what we need to help us appreciate our blessings, we honor the reality of family life. These events will become lasting and cherished memories.
5. Find a minute for yourself.
The pressure to be everything and do everything for others (including family) can be overwhelming. Find those events in your schedule that you can let go so that you can schedule some time (even a few minutes) for yourself. During that time, take a moment to thank yourself for what you do to keep your family functioning. Engage in some self-care, which includes movement, eating nutritious foods, drinking water, mindful practices, sleeping, and practicing a beloved hobby. Remember that when you pray in gratitude instead of asking for graces and blessings, you protect and enhance your mental health.
6. Put it in words.
When you are feeling overwhelmed, it is helpful to examine the underlying emotions. It helps us understand what we might accidently be doing that gets in the way of our own mental health. Dr. Ebony Butler, in her deck of “My Therapy Cards,” invites us to finish this sentence: “When I am feeling overwhelmed, I am also feeling …”. Whatever emotion this exercise reveals can help us point to changes we need to make. For example, when you feel overwhelmed you might also feel angry. This could mean you need to examine your boundaries. Maybe you say “yes” when you mean “no.” If, when you feel overwhelmed you also feel sad, maybe there is some grief that you need to process. Naming our feelings helps us (and our children) experience the emotion less intensely and can uncover some ways we can care for ourselves better.
7. Process from the bottom-up.
Our brains are constantly searching the environment for threats and opportunities. When we are feeling stressed, creating rhythmic, predictable, patterned, familiar surroundings helps us feel less stressed. Have you ever been feeling cranky, uncomfortable or short-tempered while having to clean the kitchen? Usually when we turn on familiar music or listen to a beloved book, it helps us feel less annoyed, stressed or uncomfortable. Our brain recognizes the familiar and patterned as “safe” and makes us feel better.
8. Do unto others.
Your mom was right (and the Bible, too!). When we help someone else, we feel happier, more compassionate, and better about ourselves. Even adolescents who have a hard time relating to the feelings of others, who have a difficult time taking other peoples’ perspective, benefit from helping others. Decorate for a neighbor, deliver toys to charities, give hard-earned money, serve meals, bake for others, have your kids walk someone’s dog or watch their kids. Whenever you give your time or talents to others, you bolster your own sense of well-being. Even if your kids are resistant to the idea, they will ultimately benefit from participating. Just don’t expect that they will gush with praise and thank you for making them participate. However, down the road, they WILL remember it as a positive holiday experience.
9. Pick your battles.
Remember that increased stress during the holiday often leads to increased conflict in our homes. Rest assured that your only job during these conflicts is to remain calm, be predictable and take care of yourself first. When the children are complaining, fighting and pushing our buttons, our MOST IMPORTANT role is to take a breath, calm ourselves and be the adult. Children feel safe and confident when we act like adults, give consequences and appear to be in control. They get scared when we yell and scream, are unpredictable, or neglect to enforce rules. If there is a lot of conflict in your family, choose those things that affect health and safety (no hitting, pushing, wrestling) and enforce the consequences. Remember that consequences don’t have to be “big and ugly” but instead need to be consistent and annoying. Keep it simple. If you want to see more of a behavior, give a reward. If you want to see less, give a consequence. The best consequences are small, brief and annoying.
10. We have only this moment.
Several times in each day, try to be present in a moment. Whether that means stopping to take that first whiff of your cup of coffee, appreciating the sparkle of the Christmas lights in the darkened room after everyone has gone to bed, listening to the crisp crunch of snow under your boots, or enjoying the sweet, rich, velvety taste of a Christmas chocolate, try to be IN that moment. Any time you can spend experiencing life through your senses, even for a moment, helps fortify your mental health and manage your stress.
In the end, the best thing you can do for your family is to take care of yourself. Practice self-compassion, appreciate everything you accomplish and let go of any unmet expectations. Be IN the moment of this blessed season, and rest assured that what your children will remember best are the simple moments, the laughs, the closeness, and the shared experiences that present themselves this holiday season.
Happy Christmas to you and your families!
Dr. Jules Nolan is a psychologist, author, speaker, and owner of Phoenix School Counseling LLC, a private practice that serves non-public schools with counselors, consulting, and training services. She is the past president of Minnesota School Psychology Association and recently co-authored a college textbook on adolescent development: Real World, Real Challenges: Adolescent Development in Contemporary Society. Dr. Nolan serves schools and families with mental/behavioral health, school performance, and social/emotional learning needs.