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5 Last Minute Tips to Help You Enjoy Your Holidays

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woman_wrapped_in_xmas_lightsThe Holidays are nearly upon us, and as we barrel through any last-minute shopping trips or grocery runs, Family Institute staff therapist and Director of Research Lynne Knobloch-Fedders, PhD, provides some overarching tips to help make the holiday season more relaxing, meaningful and stress-free for you and your family.

Tip 1: Understand and focus on what makes the holiday season special for you.

Spend some time thinking about what make the holidays special for you. This will make it easier for you prioritize what is really important, and will prevent you from getting distracted by unimportant details. In addition, try to make your expectations of the holidays as realistic as possible. It helps to develop a sense of humor. When things go wrong (which they will), it is helpful to be able to laugh rather than cry.


Tip 2: Maintain your normal routine as much as possible.

Sometimes the holidays are stressful simply because they require that we break out of our normal routine. Make an effort to keep to your normal schedule as much as you can. If you have regular exercise, sleeping or eating patterns, try to stick to these as much as possible to avoid disrupting your body’s natural rhythms.


Tip 3: Give yourself the gift of self-care.

The holiday season often is extremely draining because of all those extra activities. It is important for you to take good care of yourself during the holiday season. Eat well, exercise, get plenty of sleep and take “time out” to enjoy things that you love.


Tip 4: Develop family rituals.

Rituals can be fun – and meaningful – ways to celebrate the holiday season. Traditions passed down through the generations can become cherished memories. But the key is to keep rituals simple – they do not have to be elaborate to be meaningful.


Tip 5: Practice good communication with your family and friends.

Holiday stress can also be caused when misunderstandings or disagreements occur between family members or friends. It can be tempting to avoid creating more conflict, so we often tend to ignore the problem and hope it goes away. However, a better solution is to address your concerns directly with your family or friends in a gentle, but honest, manner. Encourage them to be open with you as well. Work together to find a solution that is satisfactory to everyone.


The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health treatment for families, couples and individuals. Learn more about what we do on our website.

This Holiday Season, Strive to Be Present, Not Perfect

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This time of year, we are inundated with images of the perfect holiday season in books, in magazines, on television and in movies. These messages show us that the holidays are a significant, special time that demands perfection — a time when unattainable standards should be met: perfect meals, homemade gifts, Christmas cards and letters that summarize a year of growth and success, impeccable decorations, maintaining one’s figure in the midst of culinary excess … the list goes on and on.

However, life doesn’t function that way — a child gets sick, the cat knocks over the tree, the turkey burns and families argue. Striving for holiday perfection often ends in shame since everyday life makes perfection an impossible, unattainable goal. Today’s tips on how to avoid this quest for perfection come from Dr. Mary Doheny, PhD and licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.


Flour everywherePerfection is ubiquitous in our culture and especially afflicts women. Psychologists believe that people strive for perfection in an effort to avoid and/or minimize shame, judgment and blame: Perfection is born of shame, and the belief that our authentic, flawed selves are not worthy of love and respect. However, psychologists believe the opposite is true: We feel actual love and acceptance when we unabashedly show our shortcomings and vulnerabilities — when we let others see us in all our fragility, insecurity and ineptness and we stop trying to be perfect.

Trying to do a good job is different than perfectionism, which relies on unattainable standards and impossible goals. To truly do your best you need to forgive your flaws. Life is messy and ridiculous and can’t be controlled — so why not laugh? Disasters in the kitchen or during the celebration make for great stories and hilarious memories that connect loved ones.

The following tips offer ways to let go of perfectionism and stay present during the holiday season:

  • Monitor your stress and scale back when you realize you’re not having fun. If you feel stressed and exhausted, that’s a signal that something is wrong and it’s time to scale back.
  • Emphasize the experiences and the specific moments of the holidays and stay mindful — don’t try to control them and/or other people in your life.
  • Don’t seek your validation from others and remind yourself that you are good enough.
  • Remember to stop and play — ask someone else to bring the pie so you can take time to enjoy yourself.



Mary Donhey, PhD, is a staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University where she sees clients at our downtown Chicago location. To read her full bio or make an appointment, please visit our website.

The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health treatment for families, couples and individuals. Learn more about what we do on our website.


5 Ways to Deal With Family Stress During Children’s Holiday Breaks with Hollie Sobel, PhD

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Free time in parkFor many, the holidays mean time off. For adults, that may mean a day or two off, or maybe an early dismissal on Christmas Eve. For children, however, it almost always means a number of days (if not weeks) off of school. This break, while necessary for children, can be stressful for families as they try to maintain their routine, balance their time, and coordinate schedules.

Today’s tips for dealing with this stress come from Hollie Sobel, PhD, staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.


Some parents require that their children spend a significant amount of their vacation working on academic tasks. However, time off from school around the holidays gives children the opportunity to take a break from the stresses that can be related to the demands of school. While kids need structure to their days, and often have homework to complete over breaks, it’s important to not overdo it or be too rigid. Instead, school breaks provide parents with the opportunity to teach time management and organizational skills to their children. It’s important to have a balance of work and play time.

There are also social issues that arise for children and adolescents on their holiday breaks. During breaks, children lose access to the social contact that is inherent in the school setting.  Without this, children with poorly developed social skills or social anxiety can experience feelings of isolation during vacation. For the socially active child, time off of school can lead to stress if he or she does not attend every possible social activity.  This child may fear that they will lose their social status if they are not present at an event. In both of these cases, balance is the key, and parents have the opportunity to instill time management lessons.

Here are five tips for managing the scheduling, the stress, and creating balance while the kids are home from school over holiday break:

  1. Balance Structure and Freedom: Maintain a structure that includes a bed-time/curfew and a wake-time, but don’t be too rigid. Studies show that keeping your bed and waking times within one to two hours of your daily routine during breaks shouldn’t interfere with your regular schedule.
  2. Plan Ahead: Parents’ schedules are important, and often not as flexible. Remember to plan play dates ahead of time, work with other parents and/or family members to plan outings, and coordinate vacation time with spouses or other caretakers. Planning ahead can make the holiday break run more smoothly and reduce stress.
  3. Recognize Teachable Moments: Take the time off as an opportunity to teach your kids time management, organizational and independence skills. For example, parents with young children can create stations in their homes where their kids can draw for a portion of their time, play with blocks for another portion, and so on, teaching them to move from one activity to another without requiring continuous monitoring by a parent.
  4. Balance Family and Friends: Encourage less social children to reach out to peers and get out of the house. Look for activities that might suit them, or help them send texts or call friends to initiate plans. For overly social children, try to ease the anxiety that can come with trying to fill every moment with a social activity by encouraging moderation and balance.
  5. Develop Traditions and Rituals: Having traditions and rituals help build family cohesion. Research shows that high levels of family cohesion and support are related to good coping skills. Use the holiday break to build meaningful, memorable moments with your kids.

Hollie Sobel, PhD, is a staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, where she has specialization in conducting diagnostic, psychoeducational, and personality testing batteries to primarily children/adolescents with a variety of psychiatric and medical diagnoses. She also sees families and individuals at the Institute’s downtown Chicago location. To learn more about Hollie Sobel, PhD, or to make an appointment, please visit our website.


5 Ways to Use Mindfulness to Ease Holiday Stress

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The Holiday season has become incredibly hectic—what used to be a few days of tradition is now two months of frenzy, making it difficult to stay in the moment and actually enjoy the time of year. Practicing mindfulness, a meditative process that encourages being aware in the present moment without judgment, can help ease some of the stress. Today’s tips on how mindfulness can help people handle the holiday anxiety come from Lesley Seeger, LCSW, staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University and part of our Mindfulness and Behavior Therapies Program.

  1. Don’t lose track of you. It can be easy to run through the motions of the holidays quickly and lose sight of your own needs and feelings. As you move through the Holidays, check in with yourself and also make time for self-care. A quiet moment alone can help keep your priorities in check.
  1. Stay in the moment. Family holiday events can be particularly stressful because there are often many dynamics in one space: multiple generations and extensions, different personalities and lots of different emotions. If you feel yourself getting particularly overwhelmed in these situations, try to take a deep breath, notice the thoughts and feelings arising and then let them go as you bring yourself back to the present moment.
  1. Slow down. It’s important to set limits for yourself during this holiday season, as it’s impossible to tackle every request, party or task that may be expected of us. If you feel yourself spreading too thin or moving too quickly, stop, and slow down. Additionally, moving too quickly can cause you to miss moments—take a beat and notice what’s happening around you.
  1. Take a break. In particularly overwhelming or anxiety-inducing situations, it may be necessary to take a break, and that’s okay. Go for a walk or leave the room and take deep, slow breaths until you find yourself back in the present moment and able to let go of the thoughts and feelings you may be holding onto.
  1. Remember the purpose. The holidays are a time for us to be with our loved ones, enjoy old traditions and create new ones. Push to the side any pressures you may be feeling about to-do lists and people-to-see so that you can create space for simply being together.  Taste the food you’re eating, notice your nephew as he opens a gift from Grandpa, or see what you feel as you serve ham at the local homeless shelter.  Remember why the holidays are an important time of year, and be sure to be present enough to enjoy them.



Lesley Seeger, LCSW is a staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. She sees clients at our downtown Chicago location and is a member of the Mindfulness and Behavioral Therapies Program. To learn more about Lesley or make an appointment, please visit our website.


The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health treatment for families, couples and individuals. Learn more about what we do on our website.


5 Ways to Reduce Your Holiday Stress by Planning Ahead

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2014 December Calendar PlanningThe Holiday season has become incredibly hectic—what used to be a few days of tradition is now two months of frenzy. However, actively thinking and planning ahead how you want to approach the season and all its parties, traditions and family obligations can help manage all that chaos. Today’s tips for how planning ahead can help families, couples and individuals handle the holiday stress come from Lesley Seeger, LCSW, staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

  1. Use your calendar. It’s important to determine how much time you have before you can determine how much time you want to spend shopping for gifts, baking cookies, or socializing. Don’t wait until right before the big holidays to determine how you’ll split up your time—do so in advance. Schedule when you’ll run important errands, decide which parties or events you’ll attend, and don’t forget to build in downtime so it’s not all about the Holidays.
  1. Manage expectations. As we head into the chaos, it’s important to keep expectations in check—both yours and the important people in your life. With the advent of social media, we receive invitation after invitation to events and gatherings around this time of year. Remember that it isn’t possible to do everything and please everyone—make sure that you’re comfortable managing expectations and saying “no” when you need to. Additionally, when you plan out your holiday schedule, be sure to let others know what your plans are in an effort to avoid surprises or disappointments.
  1. Check in about traditions in advance. As you make your holiday plans in advance, try checking in with your family and loved ones, as well as with yourself, about traditions you’ve held onto for years. Communicate before the Holidays about things like how much to spend on gifts or who will host and make holiday dinners, and ask yourselves and each other about what’s fair and what’s desired. Additionally, remember that new additions to your family may mean new or different traditions should and will begin. Communicating early and often about these issues can help alleviate some of the stress they may bring.
  1. Schedule self-care. During busy times, it can be very easy to neglect ourselves. However, it is during these times that it’s most important to take good care of ourselves. Given the onset of cold temperatures and the frenzy of the season, building in time for rest, exercise, and balanced eating will allow you to stay healthy and energetic so that you can, in fact, enjoy the pleasurable activities you’ve planned.
  1. Don’t rule out flexibility. While planning ahead can reduce stress and help make the Holiday season go smoother, it’s impossible to plan for everything. Remember that breaks from your regular schedule can be a good thing—they offer variety and mark the time of year as different and special.


Lesley Seeger, LCSW is a staff therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. She sees clients at our downtown Chicago location and is a member of the Mindfulness and Behavioral Therapies Program. To learn more about Lesley or make an appointment, please visit our website.


The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health treatment for families, couples and individuals. Learn more about what we do on our website.

Children, Loss & the Holidays: 4 ways parents and/or caregivers can support grieving children through the holiday season

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child_ornament_tree_decoratingHolidays are usually depicted as a happy time to celebrate with families. For some families, holidays can bring a lot of joy, togetherness, and closeness with family and friends. For other families, it can be a very stressful and sad time.

Children who have experienced loss in their family, whether through their parent’s divorce or the death of a loved one, face their own set of challenges and struggles during the Holiday season. However, there are steps that parents and caregivers can take to help alleviate some of the difficulties.


  1. Remember the old and the new. The holidays mark a time to grieve old traditions. It is important for both children and parents to mourn the time when their family looked and felt different, while also trying to embrace new traditions and a new structure to their family unit.
  2. Allow for sadness and excitement. Parents should be mindful to create space for their children to express their emotions of sadness and grief around the loss of what they used to know within their family, while also encouraging excitement around creating new family traditions.
  3. Unite the fronts. If possible, parents should try and work together to create a collaborative atmosphere in which they can present as a united front in communicating these messages to their children.
  4. Model the emotions. It can be helpful for parents to role model to their children the feelings of both sadness around the holidays and also the hope around creating new memories.


In essence, parents and/or caretakers really have a lot of power and opportunity when it comes to supporting their children throughout the holiday season. By being mindful of these issues and following these steps, they can help move their family forward by mourning the past and encouraging hope for the future.


This content comes from Mallory Rose, LMFT, a Family Institute staff clinician who facilitates the Institute’s Rainbows groups.

The Family Institute at Northwestern University’s Rainbows groups provide peer support for children who have suffered the death of a parent/loved one, divorce, or military deployment, at no cost to families.

Through our partnership with Rainbows, an international not-for-profit organization that assists children through their grief, we offer this safe, nurturing environment for children to mourn the loss of their relatives and/or nuclear family.

When: Mondays & Wednesdays, after school

Location: The Family Institute at Northwestern University, 666 Dundee Road, Suite 1501, Northbrook

Cost: No charge

Age: Elementary school

Advanced registration is required. Space is limited.


The Family Institute’s Rainbows support groups are led by certified Rainbows facilitators who guide elementary school-age children struggling with parental loss such as separation, divorce or death. The groups meet at The Family Institute’s Northbrook location.

If you are the parent of an elementary school-aged child going through a loss, or know a child who is, please contact Mallory Rose, Rainbows coordinator, at 847-733-4300, ext. 806 or to learn more about the Rainbows Program.

TFI Insights: Positive Endings

As another year comes to an end, it’s timely to reflect on other endings as well―and how they can be opportunities for your family.

The next time you and your spouse get into an argument, call the kids over to watch and listen.

(You might be thinking: What? That’s crazy!)

Our children learn to handle conflict by watching how others do it, particularly their parents.

(You might be thinking: I don’t want them to imitate us!)

If the thought of the kids sitting ringside when you and your partner go at it leaves you horrified, it’s time to brush up on your fair fighting skills. Consider meeting with a marriage counselor for a few training sessions; read a book or two on the topic; your kids someday will thank you. In the meantime, know that research reported in the Journal of Family Psychology (December, 2007) reveals that how parental fights end carries a lot of weight for the children. Kids need to see some kind of warm, positive ending in order to stave off the disheartened, discouraged feelings that parental conflict can provoke (and the unfortunate conclusion that conflict is to be avidly avoided.)

Here are some ways to bring your arguments to an end:

  • Whether you’ve worked things out or made no headway at all, punctuate the ending with a hug or kiss — at least a handshake, regardless of how you feel about one another. High school athletes line up and “high five” the opposing team at the end of a game; you can, too.
  • Say “We’re getting nowhere. Let’s just agree to disagree. We can talk about it again another time.” (Cue the handshake or embrace.)
  • Or say “It was hard to work this out, but I’m glad that we did.” (Again, handshake or embrace.)

End your arguments with a positive word and gesture, whether the kids are present or not; doing so will create a habit that comes easily when the kids are around. We want our children to understand that conflict is inevitable in any relationship, and although it might feel unsettling while it’s happening, it doesn’t cancel the underlying love and care we feel for one another.

For more expert tips from The Family Institute, visit our tips page.

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