How to Help Kids Handle Holidays in Tough Times

Fewer presents can mean less stress, more joy.

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Lots of kids aren't going to find what they asked for under the tree this Christmas, and lots of parents are stressed out about not being able to deliver a perfect holiday. Four fifths of people expect a stressful holiday because of the economy this December, according to a new poll from the American Psychological Association, and the number's even higher among parents.

I'm a minimalist when it comes to Christmas loot, but I've still had a hard time telling myself that it's OK to give the kids less this year. So, I called Mary Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Md., who serves as a public education coordinator for the APA. Her advice? Disappointment can be a valuable gift. "Disappointment is one of those life lessons we all need to learn," Alvord says. Teach kids now that they don't always get what they want, and they'll be equipped to cope with disappointment throughout life.

But children need to be forewarned if the holidays are going to be less lavish this year, Alvord says. Say: "Just like in any year, you might not always get what you want. We know that's hard, but you just have to be realistic. We do the best that we can." (My colleague Lindsay Lyon explains in this article how you can tailor financial bad news so it's age appropriate for kids.) Doing the best also includes being gracious when aunts and grandmas give boring gifts, and Alvord recommends practicing the properly polite responses in advance.

But enough about not giving. What can we give our children that will become lifetime treasures? Here are four of Alvord's favorites:

• Start new holiday activities, whether it's going to a favorite park together, singing or playing music together, or playing a game that's hidden away the rest of the year. "Whatever the holiday may be, for the next two weeks, our country is in the holiday season," Alvord says. "Celebrate what you do have, not what you don't have."

• Romp together. A family run, sledding outing, or pickup basketball game can become a cherished tradition. Exercise is a terrific stress buster, not to mention a great way to burn cookie-induced calories.

• Give to others. Altruism is not only the essence of the holiday spirit; it's clinically proven to be a potent antidepressant. Invoke the spirit of the holiday by doing volunteer work, or helping a neighbor.

• Be grateful for what you have. You don't have to watch It's a Wonderful Life to know that it's the intangibles that really matter: health, hope, love, and family and friends to share them. Just pointing that out to the family can shift the focus from what might be missing this year to the abundance still there.

That call to gratitude makes me think of a family I've known for years who will be far from home this Christmas. They're at Duke University, where the dad is undergoing a stem-cell transplant to fight leukemia. I know that a furnished apartment in Durham is the last place they want to be for the holidays, but if this works, they'll have many more Christmases together. The dad has never complained, despite months of wretched treatments, and just this week wrote: "Love your family and friends, because they will make you feel better faster than any...medical cures. You need the medical cures, but you just can't beat that Love Thing."

Now I know what to give everyone on my gift list: It's nonfattening, free, and glorious. And it doesn't even need to be wrapped. Merry Christmas. Here's your Love Thing!