The holiday season can be a wonderful and magical time. It can also be a source of stress and family conflict for many – between frantically buying presents, attending parties, traveling to see family, and hosting out-of-town guests, the holidays can quickly become overwhelming. Research has found that during the winter holidays, people experience lower overall mood, and statistics also show an increase in alcohol-related fatalities during this time.
All of these factors can create a particularly challenging environment for teenagers. Adolescents, who are still developing emotion regulation skills and the ability to manage stress and overwhelm, can experience worsening mental health symptoms as a result of the many stressors that surface during the holidays. This can lead to deleterious outcomes such as relapse of psychiatric disorders and increased suicide risk. As a parent, trying to manage your teen’s mental well-being along with the many other holiday obligations can feel impossible. However, by utilizing a few key strategies and watching out for important warning signs, you can be well-prepared to help your teen survive the holiday season. But first, what exactly makes the holidays so difficult for teenagers?
Reasons that teenagers struggle during the holidays
Understanding the reasons that the holidays can be so tough for teens is half the battle when it comes to helping them get through the season. One major reason is the associated long break from school. In general, taking a break from school can have many benefits – lowered stress levels without constant assignments and tests, decreased risk of bullying and peer conflict, and fewer opportunities to engage in risky behaviors away from adult supervision. However, the winter break from school can also have significant consequences for teenagers, especially those already struggling with mental illness. Critically, being away from school generally means less social interaction with peers. This is important because socialization with peers is particularly important during adolescence – studies show that these interactions actually drive the development of vital brain structures and functions, along with contributing to identity development and individuation. Because of this, teenage brains crave social interactions, and many teenagers feel much worse without them. Not only is it difficult to be away from their friends during this time, but the substantially greater time spent with family and relatives can be extremely taxing for an adolescent. Relatedly, because teenagers are at home with less to do and unable to see friends, they are likely to spend significantly more time using social media during the holidays. While it is important to remember that social media is not inherently negative, some research suggests that greater time on social media may be associated with poorer sleep, lower self-esteem, and poorer body image in adolescents. Further, all of these factors were also associated with increased depressive symptoms.
In addition to decreased social interaction and increased social media use, teenagers may suffer due to a “rebound effect” at the end of or immediately after the holiday season. The holiday season, for all of its stresses, can also be a very enjoyable time. Many teenagers may find the time away from school relaxing, enjoy seeing cousins and other relatives, or may find the hustle and bustle of the holiday season to be a welcome distraction from their anxiety or mood difficulties. Thus, when the holidays are ending and daily life is resuming, people can experience heightened psychiatric symptoms. In fact, the increase in suicide risk most strongly associated with the winter holidays is right after New Year’s Day, when most people return to school, work, and their regular routines. Knowing this, it may be important to put additional thought into navigating this transition back to daily life.
Factors that exacerbate mental illness during the holidays:
Not only are the holidays challenging overall for teenagers and adults, but they can present risks and triggers for those already dealing with psychiatric disorders. In the United States, approximately 17% of teenagers ages 12-17 years old have experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year. Teens with past or present depression may struggle with loneliness and/or isolating during the holidays, especially for those with strained family relationships. In addition, teenagers whose depression has a seasonal pattern may already be experiencing lower mood and increased symptoms as a result of the time of year, intensifying everything else that the holidays bring. Many adolescents also have anxiety disorders, with 31.9% of American adolescents 13-18 years old having an anxiety disorder diagnosis. For these teens, the upheaval in their routine and general unpredictability associated with the holidays can increase anxiety and related symptoms. Further, being around large numbers of people can be highly anxiety-provoking, especially for those with social anxiety.
Teenagers with eating disorders and those struggling with addiction also face myriad triggers throughout the holiday season. Nearly 3% of adolescents 13-18 years old have been diagnosed with an eating disorder. For these teens, just being around large amounts of holiday food can be challenging, but more so with the pressure to eat more or less that often accompanies holiday meals. In addition, it is common in many families for relatives who haven’t visited in a while to comment on weight gain or loss, or other eating habits, which can be extremely upsetting for a teenager managing disordered eating. Many teenagers also struggle with substance use disorders, with around 6% of teens in the U.S. having an alcohol- or drug-related substance use disorder.
Strategies to help you and your teen survive the holidays
With all of this in mind, how can a parent help teens navigate a chaotic holiday season?
1. Talk to your teen!
One of the most important aspects of parenting a teen is keeping the lines of communication open at all times. It can be particularly helpful to talk about any potential stressors before the holiday season so that you and your teen can prepare together. You can start by letting them know that it’s normal to be stressed during the holidays, and that they may feel frustrated, upset, or anxious at various times. Then make a game plan together – brainstorm ways that they can cope with those difficult emotions when they come up, and then ask how you can be helpful to them in those moments. Even if their answer is “leave me alone”, it is important to respect that! A useful strategy for teens like this is to come up with a code word together, so that they can use the code word to let you know that they are having a difficult time, without having to talk to you about it before they are ready.
Every parent and teenager goes through periods during which communicating becomes more of a challenge. If you are approaching the holiday season and you feel like your teenager is not talking to you, check out these communication tips.
2. Choose your battles & take breaks
It is unlikely that your teenager will happily attend every dinner, family function, party, and performance that the holiday season brings. Though this may be disappointing, it is important to remember that adolescents are learning to become independent adults. With this in mind, respect their budding independence by negotiating with them about what they want to participate in and what they would prefer to skip. As you do this, keep in mind that it’s important for them to avoid isolating themselves for long periods of time.
Similarly, as you navigate the many obligations of the holidays, be open to your teen taking breaks during events, or attending only parts of some functions. This will allow them flexibility to still be present for events but with the option to step away or leave to see a friend when they get tired, overwhelmed, or frustrated. Teaching your teen to observe their own emotions and understand when they need to take breaks in this manner is a critical skill to develop for emotion regulation and can be a useful coping mechanism in all aspects of life.
3. Give them permission to spend time with friends
As previously mentioned, social interactions with peers are very important for adolescent brain development and this can make teens feel frustrated when they are deprived of time with their friends. Even though it may be hard, it can be incredibly beneficial to allow your teen to spend some time with their friends throughout the holidays. Not only will your teen feel understood and respected by you, but they will likely be more willing to spend time with family when they are able to balance that time with friends as well.
4. Maintain some structure
One of the most difficult aspects of the holiday season is the disappearance of any sort of routine or regularity in day-to-day activities. Therefore, any structure that you are able to keep in your teen’s life could work wonders in how well they cope with the holidays. Try to help them schedule time to engage in hobbies, spend time with friends, and take care of household tasks. A critical part of this is helping your teen to keep their sleep schedule as consistent as possible during this time. Irregular sleep patterns and insufficient sleep can affect one’s ability to regulate mood and anxiety. Further, teenagers require more sleep than either children or adults, so the disruption in sleep patterns common during the holidays is likely to affect teens more than anyone else.
5. Consider volunteering as a family during the holidays
While it may feel random, volunteering or participating in other acts of altruism can be highly beneficial for and appealing to teenagers. Research has shown that finding meaning and “mattering” in the context of society are both important factors driving adolescent behavior. Without guidance, teens can think that the best or easiest way to “matter” is by engaging in reckless and irresponsible behaviors that are considered “cool” by their peers. However, you can steer your teen’s behavior in a positive direction and use this knowledge by incorporating charitable activities into your holiday season. Some examples of good family activities might include volunteering at a homeless shelter or food bank, helping to run a toy or coat drive, or adopting a family for Christmas.
6. Let things go!
Finally and most importantly, don’t forget to let things go when you can! Teenagers are going through a lot – handling school, deciding what they want to do with their lives, discovering their own identity, testing boundaries, and finding where they fit in the world. These are all trial-and-error developmental processes, so they will inevitably make mistakes. They will make stupid decisions and say hurtful things, particularly when they are stressed or emotional. So especially during the holidays when you have lots on your plate… if it’s not dangerous, expensive, or becoming a pattern, do your best to let it go. You will thank yourself and so will your teen!
When to seek professional help
By reading this article, you are already taking a huge step toward supporting your teen through the holidays! However, sometimes problems arise that may be too serious to handle on your own. While all of these things are typical for teens to experience here and there, if any of these persist for 1-2 weeks or more, consider seeking professional help:
- Major changes in eating and/or sleeping habits
- Major changes in overall mood – more than normal – especially greater anger, irritability, or anxiety
- Isolating more than usual, especially from friends
- Decreased engagement in favorite activities
- More frequent physical complaints – headaches, stomachaches, etc.
- Major changes in appearance or hygiene
- Any mention of thinking about death, feeling like life isn’t worth living, or wanting to die – do not blow these off as being dramatic!
The holidays aren’t all bad!
It’s important to remember that the holidays are still supposed to be a joyful time! A great deal of research shows that many aspects of mental health do improve during the holidays: adolescent psychiatric hospital admissions decrease during the holidays, intentional overdoses decrease, and adolescent suicide rates are lower on and around Christmas. Additionally, teenagers often get more sleep and feel less stressed on a day-to-day basis when school is not in session. Most importantly, if your teenager’s relationships with you and other members of the family are positive, spending more time at home during the holidays can be invaluable. With a little bit of preparation, you can make sure that the holiday season brings you and your teen happiness, instead of exasperation.
The holidays are over and we’re still struggling…
If the holidays are stressful for your teen and their symptoms do not improve, help is available. Antelope Recovery offers a parenting program to support teens at risk for psychiatric disorders and a teen group to help teenagers develop critical emotional and social skills. On top of that, Antelope Recovery is offering a virtual Intensive Outpatient Program for teens struggling with their mental health who need more support than 1 therapy appointment each week. With Antelope Recovery’s help, you can help your teen thrive.