12/22/2012 08:12 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2013

How to Stay Guilt-Free This Holiday Season

These days, guilt is a nearly unavoidable part of parenting. That's because our feelings of adequacy and success are often tied tight to our children's everyday lives. We feel bad when we can't, or don't, give them everything they want; we feel bad when we give them too much. We feel responsible for their every emotion and experience. We feel terrible when they're unhappy or disappointed, even when those feelings have nothing to do with us. And we can't help but compare our parenting to that of others: Are we doing a better job than other people we know, than our own parents did? Or are we doing worse?

Pile on the general sense of stress the holidays inspire in many of us as we try -- but don't always succeed -- to make time for everyone and everything and you've got the perfect recipe for a holiday guilt-fest. We over-shopped; we couldn't afford what we'd have liked to. We worked too much. We didn't take them to see Santa; we took them to see Santa. Our tree was too small. Our cookies were too sugary.

Our feelings of self-doubt are, naturally, compounded by what we perceive is happening for other families. Tara, mom to rambunctious 10-year-old Seth, wondered why her child seemed to be the only kid around who didn't make an effort to behave during the holidays; then she berated herself for all the yelling she'd been doing. Whatever the perceived deficit in our kids, our situation, or ourselves -- and we nearly always perceive some deficit -- the blame, we think, lies with us.

Jane loved that her nine-year-old, Nicholas, still believed in Santa Claus. Until the afternoon he came home from school in tears. "Some of the other kids in his grade had made fun of him for still believing," Jane remembers. They called him "stupid," a "baby," among others. For weeks, Jane couldn't shake the feeling that she herself had brought this torment on her child. "All I had wanted to do was let him hold onto the magic of Christmas for as long as he could," she says. "Instead, I felt responsible for not preparing him for what other kids might say, and then guilty for having allowed myself to enjoy the fact that he still believed."

What you need to remember this holiday season: Your job as a parent is to give your child love and support. It's to help them feel cared for and safe. It's not to give them a "perfect" holiday, whatever that even means. And it's certainly not to beat yourself up at every turn. Kids, let's remember, are for the most part resilient and hopeful. They're going to have the experience they have no matter how you try to alter it, create it, manufacture it. And they're going to remember what they choose to remember. When is life ever perfect? Kids can remember what was wrong about Christmas but they usually remember what was right.

This year, remind yourself that you do a lot for your children every single day. Keep your efforts turned inward, and resist the temptation to use others' experiences as personal motivation even when it seems like everyone else is giving their kid the perfect holiday. Maybe you're the family who organizes a huge outing to chop down the 8-foot Frasier fir, but maybe you're the one who picks a Charlie Brown tree from the supermarket parking lot. Maybe your Elf on the Shelf "forgot" to move for three whole days, or your holiday cookie output comes courtesy of Nabisco. That's okay. Resist the urge to buy into the idea that everyone else has more time than you do, or is making better use of the time they have. Instead, remember that the holidays might be magical, but they're not magic. They don't change the circumstances that define your life any other time of the year. That's not a bad thing.

Use these days instead to teach your kids some important holiday lessons. That it's what they have -- and not what others have -- that counts. That it's what they do with what they've got, and with who they've got, that creates the holiday spirit. That just because it's Christmas doesn't mean life is suddenly perfect. In fact, the happiest holidays for the entire family can be the ones during which parents give themselves, their kids, and everyone else the gift of compassion. This holiday season, give yourself a break.

A version of this appeared on hellogiggles

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at