University of Michigan poll: Parent holiday stress could be impacting kids

1 in 5 parents admit their stress levels take away from children’s enjoyment of holidays

A woman and a girl make Christmas cookies. (Pexels)

ANN ARBOR – Striving to deliver the perfect holiday experience can bring a lot of stress into a household and make the season less enjoyable for kids, according to a new national poll.

The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at University of Michigan Health polled parents on their experiences during the holidays. One in four parents admitted that they set the bar too high for themselves while one in five believe their child’s expectations for the holidays are unrealistic.

Additionally, one in five parents said their anxiety level during the holiday season negatively impacted their child’s experience and mothers were twice as likely to be stressed over holiday preparations than fathers.

“People are surrounded by images depicting the holidays as a time of peace, love and joy,” Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark said in a news release. “Many parents want to give their children those perfect magical memories to treasure for years to come.

“But all of the behind the scenes work to make that vision come true could have the opposite effect for some families. Excessive parental stress can add tension and diminish the joy children associate with the season.”

The poll included responses from 2,020 parents who have children ages 1-18.

Graphic of holiday stressors for parents from a national poll by U-M. (C.S. Mott Children's Hospital)

On top of gifts, planning gatherings and travel for some, simply having children at home for the extended holiday break can be demanding for some parents, with more than a third of respondents admitting they feel a sense of relief when their children return to school in the new year.

“An underappreciated source of stress for many parents is having school-age children spending more time at home during the holiday break,” Clark said in a release. “In most families, school forces a daily routine, with specific times for waking up, getting out the door, bedtime, and meals.”

More highlights from the national poll, according to a U-M release:

  • Nearly 1/3 of parents say stress comes from extra shopping and holiday tasks, keeping family members healthy and household finances.
  • Other stress triggers include family gatherings, making special holiday meals and criticism from family members about holiday plans.
  • 1 in 6 parents rate their stress level as high during the holiday season – with nearly twice as many mothers experiencing high stress than fathers.
  • Some parents find the holiday break itself a stressful time – more than a third of parents polled say they’re relieved when their child goes back to school.
  • Parents say the most effective ways to reduce their holiday stress include time alone (71%), listening to music (55%), exercise (46%), prayer/religious services (28%), getting help from other family members (23%) and work (15%).
  • More mothers say help from family members relieves burdens, while more fathers look to work as a way to reduce their stress.

In addition to juggling the biggest stress triggers like long to-do lists and social gatherings, cost of gifts, other holiday activities and travel contributed to parent stress. Additionally, as the world heads into its second holiday season during the COVID pandemic, keeping all family members healthy is a top priority for many this year.

Managing holiday stress

Clark said having a family sit down and discussing what the favorite part of the holiday season is for each family member could make a difference. Listening to one another and recreating moments that family members have expressed are important to them can improve the holiday season for everyone. This strategy could also shed light on what children really care about.

“Parents may have misconceptions about what their child’s favorite holiday memories and traditions are – they could actually be much simpler than you think,” Clark said in a statement.

“Once you know what’s important to keep, you can discuss reducing effort for some holiday preparations. It’s OK for traditions to evolve over time, and for families to redefine what the ‘perfect’ holiday looks like to them.”