Christmas Expectations: How to Manage the Stress and Set Yourself up for Success

Woman Meditating at Christmas

Christmas is not always the most wonderful time of the year. Often we are dealing with extra stress, spending more money, more pressure, and less sleep. That doesn’t even include the step-family layers of competition between houses, missing kids because of custody disputes and threats, last minute schedule changes, and bad behaviour (behaviour that doesn’t just belong to little kids!).

So heading into Christmas what are some good ways to handle the chaos and the crazy?

I’m composing something new from some of my old posts, blogs and articles to help you “sleigh” your way through to Christmas day. You can implement 1 tip or idea every day. Common themes around Christmas include managing anxiety, fighting depression, contending with unmet expectations and coping with grief. I have highlighted them for you below to lighten your heavy mind, heart and soul.

Is anxiety creeping up on you? My favourite book and resource is a book by Edmund Bourne called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. It prescribes many treatment modalities that give you control over your own anxiety. I am never opposed to medication where it’s deemed necessary, however, I have done lots of research and I like to recommend to my clients natural options in addition to the medication route. It’s a good thing that these suggestions are free and easy to do: fresh air, sunshine, light exercise (like stretching in the morning when you wake up), and listening to music that invigorates you – it doesn’t have to be Christmas carols.

Grounding or getting in tune with yourself is always beneficial. I have been making meditations and affirmations a big part of my self-care diet. Here’s one I do on a regular basis: Feel your heart center. Slow down and breathe, deeply. In through the nose and a deep sigh out. Focus on the breath as it fills your chest. Then focus on the sigh out like a “haaaaa”. Focus on the tension leaving your shoulders, your jaw, your eyebrows, your upper or lower back, shake your hips side to side, feel your feet planted on the ground, all your toes and your heels as they come into contact with the floor or wiggle them in your shoes. Shake out your shoulders and hands. Smile into your heart. That was a 2 minute way to ground. Take it slower by focusing on more of your muscle groups and you can stretch it out to 5 minutes.

Another tip I read about and use is focusing on your 5 senses as a way to calm anxiety- and it works for me. For each of the senses below think …what brings you joy?

Smell – Get your diffuser going with lemon essential oils which uplifts your energy, coffee is my miracle drug and the smell brewing in the morning brings me hope and optimism and strength.

Touch – flannel is comforting and brings warm memories for me. Or cozy, fuzzy socks.

Taste – coffee, red wine, tea, or peppermints.

Sight – something that calms you- a painting, a flower, a fish tank.

Hear – music, drumming or playing music that is uplifting.

Laughter is always wonderful for pressing the reset button.

Depression is more common as days get darker sooner, the days are colder, and the nights are long. Seasonal affective disorder is real- I know. I have it. It is a constant battle from late October to late February. I have to keep ahead of my mental well being by managing stress, getting enough sleep, taking my vitamins and exercising. Depression can get trickier if you are adding grief to your struggle. Loss can be greatly magnified by the pressure to be happy, in addition to the social pressure to spend time with others. This can create guilt which adds to the emotional baggage we already have packed in our U-Haul. Withdrawing further can be dangerous. Depression and anxiety can be best friends who like to hang out with each other. If that is the case then checking in with a mental health professional could, quite literally, be a lifesaver. Lots of the suggested steps in dealing with and alleviating anxiety can also work for depression. Fresh air, exercise, and plenty of sun. Stay away from alcohol, especially if you have leaned on alcohol as a coping method, as it is a depressant and can make things worse.

Unmet expectations: These are tricky. Sometimes we don’t even know we have them unless we run into them and discover they aren’t met. Ask yourself, are they realistic? Achievable with minimum effort or without multiple people involved? If the answer to that is “yes” then the next steps are to manage them, by lowering them, then lowering them again. They are not worth having if it causes you or anyone else stress or feeling hopeless and helpless. Have a frank discussion with yourself about where the expectations are coming from: you? Your partner? Your family? Friends?

Nobody knows what it’s like to be a stepparent, except another, this includes your partner if he or she isn’t a stepparent. Journaling can help. Write out your expectations because seeing them written down can give us perspective. Are they realistic? Are they fair? Would you expect this of anyone else you know? Once you’ve given them a good review, rewrite them. Truly, you are the only one who can determine or influence your own happiness and well being. You control your reaction or response.

For step-families, the unrealistic expectations usually come from basing our reality on what first-time families are and what they do. Stop comparing yourself now.

Christmas isn’t the day…it’s a feeling, it’s the coming together of friends and family to celebrate the SEASON. As my family has gotten bigger, we rarely all get together on the 25th. For many many years, it’s been the day that works best for most of us. We have other family obligations as our children partner up and have families of their own. When you have the kids with you, whatever day that is, focus on the memories you create, taking out the sled and hitting the hill, baking, or movies. Simple fun.

Grief and loss: Often times unmet expectations lead to grief and loss. Sometimes the loss is a progressive one, not “all of a sudden”. For many stepmoms, it’s the loss of the dream, of their vision of what step-family life was going to be. It’s adjusting to the new reality once you accept that you cannot change it. It’s accepting you have no control over that loss. For me, it was not having the “one big happy family”. For many, it’s knowing that he or she had children with someone else, that they had a family before your family. It’s real, and no, it’s not something you can talk yourself out of feeling or something you can easily get over because someone tells you to. Give yourself space and grace to grieve in a way that will support you. I have suggested to many folks who struggle that helping or volunteering to help others in greater need always reminds you of your goodness, your grace and your compassion. It’s a powerful shift towards the positive. There is never a short supply of need this time of year. It restores my faith in the goodness of people, and it truly is the reason for the season.

May you find and keep peace in your mind, heart and soul this season.


Ali Wilks HeadshotAli Wilks has a BA in Psychology and an MSc in Human Ecology specializing in Family Studies. She is also a certified stepfamily coach, the owner and founder of Step by Step Mom – a stepfamily/stepmom coaching business and Wellness Editor at Stepparent Magazine. Her other job is with Children’s Services, since 1998, in Edmonton, Alberta. She is currently a trainer on Edmonton’s Caregiver Training Unit teaching classes on building skills, providing advocacy and support for foster, kinship and adoptive parents. These classes include building the essential skills in raising nonbiological children from the foster care system who present with special needs. Ali is a stepmother of 3 adult children (with a couple of grandkids too) and the birth mother of 2 beautiful girls.

Christmas Expectations: How to Manage the Stress and Set Yourself up for Success