As our children grow up and the pure wonder and excitement of the holidays wane, adolescents often experience an uptick in stress and anxiety during the holiday season.
Why So Blue?
What’s to blame for this dampening of the holiday spirit? Family conflicts, disrupted schedules, demanding social events, heightened expectations, and negative associations can all play a role. In addition, loss, recent change, and existing mental illness can make the holidays especially hard.
Not only do many adolescents kick off the holiday season with end-of-term exams before the break which adds a certain amount of stress to December, but they then have a complete change in their routine for several weeks. While we may think that they would welcome the break from school, this often means they’re also missing out on their peer support groups.
While the break may be welcomed for some teens, others find the detachment from friends difficult to cope with, and for many children, a disrupted routine (even one that includes sleeping in) can produce anxiety. In addition, they’re now traveling between relatives’ homes, and if conflicts arise for divorced households, the kids feel it. They’re also picking up on their parents’ holiday strain which only adds to their own.
How to Help?
As the holiday season is upon us, we wanted to give you some tips for helping the young people in your life who may be feeling the holiday blues.
Because our grown-up stresses can feel so much bigger, sometimes we tend to minimize what our tweens and teens are feeling.
Remember, adolescents are going through some major brain changes. Their moods and emotions may seem erratic, and while they look pretty grown up, behind those rolling eyes is an underdeveloped brain that runs more on emotion than logic.
According to Stanford Children’s Health, adults process information in the prefrontal cortex. This is the region of the brain that responds with awareness of long-term consequences and good judgment but this region doesn’t fully develop until around age 25. This is why teens process information in the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain responsible for impulsive and emotional reactivity.
So, while it may seem like your teen is overreacting or being irrational, there is a brain-based reason for their behavior, and what they often need is validation and understanding. Give your teen a safe space to unload their emotions and stress, and let them know that you understand and are there to help them.
Avoid Overload and Think Routine
The closer you can stick to a normal(ish) routine, the easier it will be for your adolescent. While attending a few holiday events is fun, overloading your schedule will be stressful for all of you. It’s hard to say “no” during the holidays, particularly to friends and family who may be excited to see you, but prioritizing your family’s mental health is important.
Communication is key during this time. It’s a good idea to hold regular family meetings to discuss holiday plans and involve your teen in the discussions. By giving them some control over their schedule during the holidays, you’ll reduce their stress. For example, if your teen suffers with social anxiety, inviting them to sit out a visit or two while making room for them to do things with friends may be very relieving for them. Promote regular mealtimes and bedtimes over the break, which will make getting back into the school routine easier in January. Likewise, make space to participate in your familiar family traditions, like baking cookies, decorating together, drinking hot cocoa while driving through the Christmas lights, and watching holiday movies together. This creates a comfortable sense of belonging within the family system, which is like a soothing balm to stressed-out hearts.
Finally, make room for downtime throughout the holiday break. With all the company that will likely be around during the holiday season, it’s important to make time to bond with your immediate family.
Make Self-Care a Family Affair
Don’t forget the “me” in merry. When you prioritize your own self-care, you’re modeling for your teen how to do the same. Of course, you can also encourage them to participate in self-care with a scheduled pedicure, a gift basket of self-care items, or a new journal.
Here are some ideas for taking care of you during the holiday season:
- Meditate. Just a few minutes a day reduces stress and calms the mind. You don’t have to be a pro - simply close your eyes and focus on your breath for a few minutes. Build up to at least 10 minutes per day. Do this with your teen to get them in the daily habit.
- Exercise. Who has time to hit the treadmill during this busy season, right? Well, you do, actually. We can always prioritize what is important to us, and exercise has been shown to lower stress and give you those feel-good endorphins. Get your teen in on the fun as well by hitting the gym together or going for a walk.
- Practice gratitude. Yes, I know it sounds cliché, but it’s backed by science. The more you practice gratitude, the happier you and your teen will feel. Make a daily gratitude practice throughout the holiday season where you list or talk about at least three things you are grateful for daily with your teen.
Teach Positive Coping Skills
Managing stress is important in building resilience and in cultivating emotional and mental wellness. Without knowing positive coping skills, teens sometimes engage in risky behaviors to try and eliminate negative feelings quickly. Here are five coping skills your teen can learn.
- Encourage positive self-talk. The conversations we have with ourselves are impactful! They often dictate our feelings and moods. We can teach our children how to overcome an inner critic by inviting them to recognize their strengths, celebrate wins, and speak to themselves like they would a friend.
- Talk it out. It’s important that your teen has a trusted adult to talk to. By providing an empathetic ear and a safe space to unload, you’re giving your teen an important gift. Reiterate to your teen that you are always there to help them through anything, and that you are on their team.
- Plan ahead. Predictability is soothing to toddlers and teens. This includes both planning ahead for activities plus downtime and having a plan in place for dealing with stress when it arises. Encourage your teen to create their own “stress plan.”
- Break problems down. Because problem-solving is a function of the prefrontal cortex, which is still underdeveloped in teens, they may need assistance in understanding and breaking down the problem. Walk through the problems that are causing them stress and show them how to tackle one problem, or even one part of a problem, at a time and find a workable solution.
- Learn Breathe-Move-Rest practices from the Move Mindfully youth starter kit. This kit features simple moves and affirming language for self-regulation and social-emotional learning.
From all of us at GENM, we hope you and your family have a holiday season filled with joy and connection. Remember, you’ve got this, and we’ve got you!