It’s supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but for many people, especially those struggling with mental health or substance use issues, this season can be tough. And, unfortunately, in 2020 aspects of the holidays that traditionally bring joy – family gatherings, parties, shopping – will be limited.

During the best of times, the holiday season is full of triggers for some people. Those with depression and anxiety often feel more isolated than usual because they are supposed to feel happy, but don’t. There is increased pressure to conform to particular social and familial expectations. Feelings of loss, loneliness and shame can become more acute. The holidays also are a time when we see a national spike in alcohol and drug use, as individuals who are already vulnerable self-medicate to cope or ignore their substance issues so they can be part of festivities.

This year, the challenges of the holidays are compounded by the negative mental health effects of the pandemic.

In my practice, I have witnessed the impact of the last months of isolation, uncertainty and loss on my adolescent and teen clients, some of whom have really struggled during COVID-19. Understandably, parents are concerned about how their children will cope during the coming weeks. For some, missing out on holiday travel and celebrations may feel like a loss. For others – especially those who are fatigued by months of online learning or mask-wearing – the opportunity to hunker down and not deal with a holiday rush, may be a good mental health break.

Be Proactive

My best advice, in either case, is to be proactive. Make your family’s mental health a priority. Check in with your teen about how they feel about Christmas, Hannukah or Kwanza this year. What is stressing them out? What might help? Beyond limiting gatherings, are there changes your family could make to traditions that would decrease stress or sadness? Ask your kids about how they would like to celebrate. Teens want to have input and be heard and engaging them in the holidays can be a good thing.

The organization Mental Health First Aid also has some helpful advice on coping during this season:

1. Manage expectations. If your kids know in advance how your family holiday is going to look different this year and are prepared that they may only see grandparents over Zoom, it will be easier for them to stay positive. 

2. Allow your teenager to pull back when they need to. Be patient with your teenager if they need a break, allow them alone time. At the same time keep an eye on whether your teen is self-isolating too much.  

3. Have them reach out. In times like this, living in a digital age can feel like a saving grace. Encourage, but don’t pressure, your child to stay connected with friends and loved ones via text, social media, video or phone.

4. Monitor your child’s moods. Be in tune with how your child is feeling and keep the lines of communication open.

5. Spend family time outside.  Mental health experts agree that getting outside over the holidays, even for a few moments every day, is one of the best things you can do for your and your family’s mental health.

6. Urge your child to ask for help if they need it. Adolescents and teens are often reluctant to talk to their parents. Just let them know that you are there for them. If they don’t want to talk to you, the following organizations can provide support during a mental health crisis:

  • Teen Line: (310) 855-HOPE (4673)
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
  • The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ youth): 1-866-488-7386 or text 678-678.
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
  • National Domestic Abuse Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE

Even though this year’s holidays will be different, your family can still experience a wonderful season by being proactive and taking care of each other. Happy Holidays!

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