The holidays can bring up feelings of anticipation and apprehension for anyone. That’s particularly true for tweens and teens, who already are in an emotionally charged stage. While they may count the days until winter break, many find that holiday fervor brings on seasonal stress.
“I look forward to the holidays, but there are some ups and downs,” says Ava Ervanian-Sproul, 14, a ninth-grader at Chaparral High School. “All the drama over winter break. It can be overwhelming. It was easier when I was younger.”
Calls to the peer-counseling hotline Teen Lifeline pick up starting with pre-break anxiety in early December and again with post-festivity blues through January, says Nikki Kontz, Teen Lifeline’s clinical director.
To help teens toward happier holidays, it helps to understand why they may feel angst during the most wonderful time of the year. Changes in routine, high expectations, family issues and painful associations are often to blame, says Leah Doane, associate professor of psychology and director of the Adolescent Stress and Emotion Lab at Arizona State University.
“As our children move from younger days with the spark and excitement of the holidays, increasing pressure and expectations can generate feelings of anxiety or stress for adolescents,” Doane explains.
Holiday disruptions start even before winter break, with the rush to finish end-of-term schoolwork and exams. During the break, kids lose their regular schedule of classes, activities, sleep and mealtimes. Then comes the roller coaster of holiday dynamics: Relatives’ visits and family conflicts about plans and activities — especially for those juggling divorced households.
Teens pick up on family financial strain related to gift giving, travel and other holiday-related expenses. Then, January brings the readjustment back into the school routine.
So what is a proactive parent to do? Experts say planning and communication are key.
Schedule holiday events.
Kontz at Teen Lifeline recommends families plan a schedule of holiday events to manage expectations for plans with family and friends. That strategy has kept joyful celebrations for the Blandini-Barr family as their daughters— Halston, 16, and Holland, 14 — have grown into busier social lives. They often stick to the same events with family and friends each year, taking care to avoid overload.
“We have always kept our annual holiday schedule and traditions consistent,” said the girls’ mother, Karen Blandini of Scottsdale. “If your family knows in advance what is happening and when, it sets expectations and makes this time of year something to look forward to rather than to dread. Teenagers like to push boundaries when it comes to their own social calendars, so having a schedule in place can alleviate conflicts, making room for added activities and fun.”
Along with having a clear holiday plan, regular communication with teens can work wonders in reducing bah humbugs. Weekly family meetings with their teens are part of the holiday recipe for Lisa and Kelly Branch of Phoenix.
“We get everyone on the same page so we agree about what is happening,” says Lisa Branch, mother of 13- and 14-year old girls. “Throughout the week there are still many spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment issues that come up. But everyone is less likely to freak out because we’ve been communicating all along. They know they can always ask for help or share new insights.”
Those open lines of communications are important, especially when kids appear overwhelmed, Kontz says. “A lot of times teens don’t yet know how to clearly put into words that there is stress.”
How do you know if your teen simply has a common case of the holiday blues, like 64 percent of Americans, or if it’s a bigger problem? Monitor the length and impact of your teen’s mood. The holiday ho-hums tend to last only several hours to days and don’t affect participation in everyday life, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. If your teen’s symptoms go above and beyond and last well into the return of usual January routines, make sure to seek help.
7 tips to help teens cope with holiday stress
- Stick to household routines. Observe regular mealtimes and bedtimes whenever possible. Ease back into the school routine with some light studying the week before school starts.
- Give teens some control over their schedule. Work out time for teens to celebrate with friends and discuss what festivities they can opt out of.
- Make room for down time and exercise. Include quiet activities such as a movie night. Encourage teens to exercise every day — anything from ice skating to taking a walk.
- Get teens involved. Assign responsibilities for holiday parties; ask them to help with shopping, decorating or cooking. Encourage them to volunteer for a good cause such as a food bank or a toy drive.
- Manage gift expectations. Discuss a realistic gift list for your teen. Set a budget for their gifts for friends and family, and encourage them to make some of their presents.
- Limit social media and screen time. Too much time on social media or with video games can cause sensory overload and encourages temper flareups. Social media in particular can set kids up for unrealistic comparisons with others’ holiday experiences.
- Take care of yourself. If you’re overtaxed as a parent, your kids will sense it. Make time for self care and show holiday spirit with balanced expectations and activity levels.
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Reach Teen Lifeline: 1-800-248-8336 (TEEN) or teenlifeline.org