Managing Holiday Prep with Kids



Along with the blessings of family come the obligations. And when the holidays roll around, we are spread more thinly than ever. With so many more to-dos on our list this time of year, managing time and resources around family holiday obligations can be tough. With fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year than usual, even the most organized among us might be feeling some pressure. Here are a few tips to consider when managing holiday prep with kids:

Make a plan

Get organized as early as possible – the earlier the better. Instead of dreading the seasonal demands, turn your anxiety into action by making an action plan. Rather than just worrying about it and letting it weigh on your mind, get it down on paper. You’ll feel better, and it will help you see the path ahead of you.
The more organized you are, the less the tasks (and the stress) will sneak up on you. Start by making two lists: one of necessary, nonnegotiable “have-tos” and one of “want-tos” – things it would be nice to do if you can find the time. Make sure to include in the list things for you as well as for the family, including down-time for rest – yes, rest! You and your family will need to be rested in order to enjoy the season.

Estimate time per task

Give time estimates for each task on both the “have-to” and the “want-to” list. Try to be as realistic as possible. Remember from last year how long things took (ask your family if you can’t remember), and which tasks were enjoyable and which weren’t.

Helping hands per task

Think about who might be able to do each task, keeping an eye out for opportunities to get other family members involved. Look for elements of as many tasks as possible that can involve your entire family. You can even ask them what their favorite parts of holiday preparations are for clues as to how to involve them. Not only does family participation make holiday preparation more enjoyable for everyone, it teaches kids the importance of getting things done. Research suggests that having been taught how to execute tasks is a better predictor of a child’s success later in life than his or her intellect.

Luckily for us, the holidays present seemingly endless opportunities to practice chores. Holiday cards, for example, are great projects for different-aged family members to do together since there are many tasks that can be done “imperfectly” by little hands (envelope-stuffing and sealing, stamp sticking, etc). Family baking or gift-giving projects also have steps with which children can help. Kids love wrapping and taping packages and making cards. They also love decorating. A favorite family decorating tip is to do the harder work (like securing the tree in the stand and/or stringing the lights) while kids are out of the house, leaving the fun decorating to do together.

I have found that children are always game to help so long as they stay engaged. Beware of short attention spans and be ready to err on the side of momentum keeping everyone interested and involved. Nothing disengages kids more than an activity that suddenly requires adult help or an adult standard. Look to balance the “have-tos” by finding ways to keep them fun. You will be teaching your children a lot more than just how to decorate a tree!

Look at the calendar

Count how many time slots exist until the deadlines for each task on your list, and tally the total time you think you will have. Don’t calculate based on how much time you hope you will have; be realistic. This step is very important. Also look at the time others in your household might have to contribute – again, be realistic!

Reconcile to-dos with available time slots

Match up the items on your “have-to” list with the available time slots based on the amount of time you estimated each task will take. Now you can put the “want-tos” into the remaining slots. Try to use the “want-tos” as rewards for having done the “have-tos.”

All this scheduling may sound excessive, but managing your time and energy resources is probably the single best-known stress-reliever when it comes to handling added pressure.

Where there is more time available than you need for a task, this is a signal that you will likely have some flexibility and can more easily involve your children. You may also want to leave some flextime for finishing tasks that will inevitably take longer than you estimate. Likewise, some tasks will take less time than you anticipate, leaving room for other “want-tos.”

Engage tasks with a sense of joy; Find the fun – and the funny – in it all 

This is where your mindset and your attitude come in. Put on some holiday music, smile, and look for the fun as you make holiday memories with your family and friends. Take the perspective that every project is an opportunity for connection and joy. Especially when involving your family, try to avoid seeking perfection, and choose instead to embrace the journey. Getting enough sleep (7.5-9 hours a night), maintaining your exercise routine, and avoiding foods and drinks that make you uncomfortable will help optimize your mental strength.

Make sure to notice momentum and tasks accomplished

Now and then along the way, stop to smell the roses, (or the Christmas tree). Notice what is going smoothly, and revel in the progress you are making every day. Make sure to involve your family in these assessments of what is positive. Working hard, taking risks, and being successful are the keys to building self-esteem. Very little is more satisfying than relishing in our efforts paying off.

Divide and conquer

When it’s crunch time, one of my favorite parenting strategies applies: divide and conquer. Take advantage of the times when your kids are occupied to get things done. Seize windows of opportunity when they are at school, and arrange for other time slots when you can get things done. Pool your resources with your spouse and conquer the to-dos together. Make sure you are both involved in the planning and the executing; trade off childcare duties and/or hire a babysitter to keep the kids entertained. Sparingly (since screentime can become a slippery slope), pop in a holiday video that will help the kids get into the holiday spirit while you are working holiday chores yourself.

Evaluate this year; Organize for next year

As you revel in the memories of the season and the satisfaction of another year’s accomplishments – preferably before you face disassembling it all again – take a moment or two to think about next year. Having just completed the holiday prep, you are primed to consider, with little relative effort, optimal strategies for next year. While it seems a long way off, next Christmas is only months away and will be here again before you know it. Look back at what you did this year, and take notes for next year in three categories:

1) Strategies that worked well should definitely be repeated next year. What were your biggest successes? How did they feel? When and how can you do it again next year? Consider putting these highlights into your calendar right now. They will be the core elements of next year’s seasonal prep.

2) Strategies that worked, but could have been better, should be given some attention. Of these partial successes, what worked? What would have worked better? Could the frustrations or setbacks have been avoided? How?

Much harder than just repeating successes, addressing the setbacks takes some real honesty. Did you expect too much of yourself? For example, if you were unrealistic about resources – time, energy, finances – what needs to change so it will go more smoothly next year?

3) Strategies that didn’t make your season easier should be avoided next year – no questions, no excuses. If flat-out eliminating these elements seems too hard, then spend some time looking for ways to work toward eliminating them. Ask your family and friends how they handle similar situations, and consider what strategies seem like they might be more promising. Envision taking the necessary steps next year and write down in your calendar when you will do just that!

What’s important is creating a system that works for you and your family. The more you are able to think ahead about next year, the happier and the less stressed you will be a few months down the road when the holiday season comes around again.


Looking for more help in understanding anxiety? Learn more about my book Hack Your Anxiety and access free tools to help you manage the fear and anxiety going around the world today.

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD