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Coping when tough economic times taint holiday cheer

Store aisles are jammed, menorahs have been lit, and houses and Christmas trees are adorned with lights, which can only mean the holidays are officially in full swing.

But with more than 15 million Americans currently unemployed, many people are finding it hard to make the season bright for themselves as well as their children.

Eighty percent of parents said that money is a significant source of stress in their lives, according to the latest Stress in America survey results released by the American Psychological Association (APA). When worries about tough economic times bump up against children's expectations of lavish gifts and extravagant vacations, that stress is only magnified.

"During the holidays, it's important for families to think outside the expectation of everyone getting everything on their lists," said Mary K. Alvord, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Rockville and Silver Spring, Md. "Otherwise, it just sets adults and children up for disappointment."

"If you're having financial difficulties, it can be helpful to look at the situation as an opportunity to get back to focusing on the things that are the most important, like family togetherness," noted Craig S. Fabrikant, a psychologist on staff at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J.

Alvord and Fabrikant offered the following advice for how families can make the best of the holidays, in good times and bad:

Be honest. Don't try to hide your financial problems from your kids and pretend to carry on as usual. According to the APA survey, more than 90 percent of children report that they know if a parent is stressed, but less than one-third of parents believe this is the case. "Children know when things are wrong, and they're actually better than adults at picking up the vibes because they can cut through all the defensive stuff," said Fabrikant. Before sitting down with your kids, think about how you'll explain the situation, advised Alvord. "Parents need to discuss the probable consequences of loss of job and income in a realistic but not alarming way," she said. "Kids often misinterpret what job loss means and might think in extremes, such as they might not have enough to eat or may not get any gifts at all."

Have a plan. "This helps us feel that we have some control over our lives, and that we're empowered," said Alvord. She recommended scheduling a family meeting and asking everyone to come up with inventive ideas for saving money during the holidays, such as having a game night or planning a hike through a local trail. "They don't all have to be realistic at first. Encourage brainstorming, and then narrow it down to what's doable," said Alvord.

Tone it down. "You can still get a tree, but you don't have to buy the biggest one on the lot," said Fabrikant. Similarly, it's better to pare down the gift lists to just a few meaningful ones, rather than risk going into debt. "Whether you have 4,000 lights on your house or 50, it really doesn't matter," he added.

Come up with "outside the box" gift ideas. "Whether money is tight or not, it's a good idea to have non-monetary gifts that demonstrate your love by offering your time and energy," said Alvord. For example, family members can create gift certificates where one person offers to do someone else's chores for a week, or a parent gives a coupon for a future activity a teenager would like, such as a special movie. You can also make homemade gifts, which are often the most cherished anyway.

See the silver lining. "It sounds corny, but it's so important to frame the situation in ways of what we have, rather than what we don't have," Alvord said. One idea is for everyone to write down compliments for individual family members on small strips of paper and then put them in a basket or box. "You can take turns reading them aloud while listening to merry music," said Alvord. Save them from year to year and make it a holiday tradition. 

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