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Home » Santa Clarita News » Families in Action - Cary Quashen » Holiday Expectations Create Family Stress

Holiday Expectations Create Family Stress


Dinner_KidsBy Cary Quashen:

ex·pec·ta·tion (ek’spek-ta’ shen)

The act of expecting.
Eager anticipation.
The state of being expected.
Something expected: a result that did not live up to expectations.
b. expectations
Prospects, especially of success or gain.

The holiday season is a time when family love, harmony, and togetherness are fostered by songs, advertisements, and the media. While this may be true for some families, the holidays can also be a period of increased family stress, and a time of false expectations. It’s a trap many of us fall into — holiday expectations, the shoulds and the should-nots of the holiday season. What I expect and what I want.  And worse yet, trying to live up to the expectations others have of us as well.  Our culture bombards us from all directions with idealized images of the holidays. Additionally, we often carry our childhood holiday expectations forward and pass them on to our children.


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Children’s expectations start to rise with the arrival of the first holiday catalogs in September and the magnitude of those expectations become apparent with the first “wish-list.” While children’s unrealistic expectations are obvious, it is important to realize that adults have unrealistic expectations as well.

When our experiences do not live up to the ideal, we may feel disappointed, upset or worse. This contributes to holiday stress.

Developing realistic expectations is one way to avoid the problem.

Money is a good place to start. Don’t fall for our culture’s materialistic message that expensive gifts are a sign of love and caring. Remind yourself that it is possible for your family to have memorable holiday experiences without spending a great deal of money. Discuss your financial situation as a family and develop a holiday budget that is based on realistic expectations of what you can afford. Stick to that budget.

Set realistic expectations about the sheer amount of things you will have time to do. You are likely to receive numerous requests during the holiday season. You may be asked to bake something and help out at your child’s holiday party, to attend a party at the boss’ house and to go caroling with a local organization.


These demands come on top of your plans to bake cookies with the children, decorate the house, wrap the gifts, complete the cards, finish the shopping and carry out your routine tasks. Even with good time management, it is sometimes impossible to get everything done without becoming tense, exhausted and irritable.

Have realistic expectations about what both you and other family members have time to accomplish. Say “no” to some requests. Don’t feel that the relatives will think less of you if you let the store wrap their gifts instead of wrapping them yourself. The cookies don’t have to be “homemade.” Don’t push yourself to the point where you and your family are too exhausted to enjoy the holidays and the only thing you feel when they are over is relief.

While the “media” family is all smiles during the holidays, don’t expect all of your time with family to be characterized by love and harmony. Family problems do not magically go away.

If your brother-in-law and brother have never gotten along, it’s unrealistic to expect their relationship will suddenly change when they arrive for a holiday dinner. If sibling rivalry is a problem with your children or grandchildren, it unrealistic to assume they will suddenly stop fighting on Christmas day. If your daughter or granddaughter is 2 1/2, it’s unrealistic to expect that she will not “act her age” when you want to take a family photograph.

Real people and real families are not perfect. Don’t expect them to be. The lesson here is to relinquish the expectations and scale down to a more manageable holiday routine.

Holidays and Families: The Dos and Don’ts

  • Don’t cling to visions of a Norman Rockwell family moment. That happens only in paintings.
  • Do consider family problems when planning celebratory gatherings. If your brother drinks too much, avoid a dinner party and throw a dry holiday brunch instead.
  • Don’t travel out of guilt. Have an honest conversation with your family about how difficult it is for you to make a trip during the holidays. Suggest visiting, say, in February, when you’ll have more time to really see one another. If they don’t understand, consider that there may be something wrong on their end.
  • Do be flexible with your partner. Some traditions are definitely worth fighting for—but you may be able to let others go.



  • Don’t force yourself to revel. If office parties or family gatherings are painful, honor your need to celebrate in your own private way.
  • Don’t isolate yourself. Seek out kindred souls and spend time with them. If you’re newly divorced, join a support group, volunteer at a homeless shelter, or shop for elderly neighbors so you have some human contact

Holiday Expectations: The Dos and Don’ts

  • Do remind yourself that the holidays may have been so wonderful in childhood because you had no responsibility for making the magic. If you have grown-up expectations, you won’t be so disappointed.
  • Do make a list of all your traditions, from decorating to Christmas caroling. Keep the ones you love (forget about impressing other people), and cross off the ones you don’t.
  • Don’t think twice about asking guests to bring food to your holiday party. Why should you have to do all the cooking when most people are perfectly happy with a potluck?
  • Don’t feel sorry for yourself if you have no parties to go to. Throw your own, and feel good inviting others who may not have invitations themselves.
  • Do have compassion for yourself during the holidays. If you’re not in a celebratory mood, you’re not the only one.
  • Do seek professional help if life doesn’t seem worth living.
  • Do try returning to your old church or synagogue if you’re feeling spiritually disconnected; if that doesn’t work, go with friends to their places of worship.
  • Don’t feel pressured to make a spiritual connection during this holiday. Set it as a goal to work on next year. Knowing you have a plan will help you feel better immediately.
  • Being realistic about the holidays is not being cynical. We are in the midst of a joyous and sacred time of the year when our hearts and minds should be filled with love and good will, not the frenzy of the get-it-done anxiety or the unrealistic expectations the holidays bring.

Here’s wishing all of you a joyful, relaxed holiday season, filled with love and happiness. Give yourselves a break delegate some of those holiday details, or better yet even and allow some of those details to slip by. Being there for your family in a sound mind, body and spirit is ultimately more important.

Cary Quashen is the host of Families In Action, a weekly radio show dedicated to giving helpful advice on how to deal with troubled teenagers and adolescents. Families In Action airs every Monday at noon on KHTS AM 1220.

Holiday Expectations Create Family Stress

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