Holiday anxiety: How to help your teen

The holidays can deliver cheer and stress, wonder and anxiety, big highs and crushing lows. These seasonal swings can be disorienting for adults, but for teens, who experience emotions even more intensely, they can be downright destabilizing.

Therapist Jeremy Lotz (MA, LPC, NCC) says the holidays can be especially hard on young adults for several reasons.

First of all, many families’ schedules go into overdrive in November and December. Teens—and their parents—can get worn down from too many activities and having too many expectations for the season.

“Kids are anxious because parents are anxious,” Jeremy says. “Parents are trying to shuttle kids around to five different houses in 36 hours, and parents are cranky and tired. Children get their cues from parents.”

Second, the holidays take young people out of their normal routine and separate them from their support systems.

“They don’t like Christmas break because they don’t see their friends,” Jeremy says. “It’s like they’ve been plopped off the Earth and thrown into orbit. That’s a big change in lifestyle and in peer access.”

Third, the holidays are a time of serious self-reflection. Teens are not immune to the cultural pressure to take stock of their lives. Like adults, they have losses and wounds that are magnified during this season.

“There just can be a collective, unacknowledged mourning and moral inventory that people seem to go through at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Jeremy explains. “No one goes through that at Fourth of July. Thanksgiving and Christmas is like an involuntary class in the meaning of life that all of us have to take and pay for, but no one really wanted to be there at 8 a.m.”

Finally, the holidays can be difficult for people in recovery and those supporting them. The season takes people out of their support system, forces them to face big questions of meaning and confront losses they might be able to ignore the rest of the year.

“People ramp up self-mediation behavior over the holidays,” Jeremy says. Many of Jeremy’s clients have traumatic holiday experiences caused by addiction, and those memories resurface at this time.

How can you help reduce your teen’s anxiety during the holidays?

  1. Do Less The number one thing parents can do to help their teens during the holidays is to simply do less. Jeremy encourages parents to release themselves from the burden of trying to do everything and see everyone. Consider video chatting with family and friends instead of physically visiting or meeting up over spring break instead of the holidays. “Prioritize where we’re going to go and for how long,” he says, “and then I would reduce that by half.”
  2. Sleep More Practicing good sleep hygiene can equip the entire family to better deal with holiday ups and downs. “Let’s go to Starbucks in the morning and not 4 p.m., because caffeine has a much longer half-life in the body than we think it does.” Jeremy says. He also recommends using a blue light filter on your phone in the evenings, taking a hot bath before bed and diffusing lavender to encourage better sleep.
  3. Manage Tech Jeremy advocates for mindful tech use not only to form good sleep habits but to help teens connect with their friends during breaks. “Parents can struggle to be sensitive toward why kids want to FaceTime their friends at school,” Jeremy says. “Give kids access to their peer system while modeling disciplined technology as parents.”
  4. Get Out Plan a few meaningful activities that are active and outdoors for both mental health and social benefits. Exercise and exposure to nature are neurologically calming and help prevent depression. Even if they might complain about going, teens really do look back on these memorable experiences positively. “The problem is that they talk about the gifts and act like they hate the experiences,” Jeremy says. “But I work with kids every day who actually appreciate what they talk about hating.” Jeremy says.

With some reflective pre-planning and smart expectations setting, parents can put their teens on a path to a much happier holiday.

“Around the holidays, we need to do some serious, objective expectations-management work, Jeremy says. “The thing that drives anxiety for teenagers the most is having unrealistic expectations for what the holiday season will produce,” Jeremy summarizes.

 

Is your teen experiencing long-term, debilitating anxiety? Reach out to Shelterwood to learn more about our residential treatment programs.