Holidays are awesome when you’re a kid: think Santa, sleigh rides, snowmen and tons of hot chocolate while sitting in front of the TV watching Home Alone for the umpteenth time. But for a teenager, they can be anything but, as final exams, college essays and anxiety about keeping it all together in front of a zillion relatives at holiday dinners threaten to overwhelm the most even-keeled adolescent.
“My waiting room this time of year is filled with depressed, stressed-out teens, especially high school seniors,” says Karen Soren, MD, professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center and the director of adolescent medicine at the New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. “It’s unusual when I don’t see a teen patient during December who doesn’t seem upset or anxious.”
While there’s no research specifically looking at teens and holiday stress, there is some evidence that teens may be more susceptible to stress in general: A 2018 survey from the American Psychological Association, for example, found that teens reported higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression in general than all other adult age groups.
You may not be capable of making your teen’s stress magically vanish, but there are things you can do to make it more manageable — and make December a month they can actually even enjoy. Here’s how:
Help them prioritize
Even the most organized teen won’t find that they have enough hours to check everything off their to-do list, according to Barb Shephard, LMHC, an adolescent therapist in Fayetteville, N.Y. Instead, encourage your teen to make a list of all of their “to dos,” and then prioritize just five essential things. Then, rank them in order of importance. “This strategy helps your teen avoid falling into the trap of getting lots of less important things done, rather than a few essential things done,” she explains. For really taxing tasks — for example, writing their main college essay — have them break it down into manageable chunks. “Writing an entire essay in one sitting can feel like climbing Mount Everest to a stressed-out teenager,” says Shephard. “Help them chart out a section that they can work on each day so that the entire task feels less daunting.”
One item that should be on the list? Some time for fun. “It’s really important to pencil in some family time at least once a week to do things everyone loves, whether that’s decorating the Christmas tree or gingerbread houses, or doing some outdoor winter activities together to get feel-good endorphins going,” she adds.
Give your teens some time-outs
This time of year, everyone is overscheduled — between sports games, school concerts, recitals, finishing up extracurricular projects and trying to cram for final exams, something has to give, says Soren. “I tell parents it’s really, really important that they allow their kids a time-out, whether it’s missing a practice here or there or even temporarily dropping out of an activity entirely,” she explains. “Otherwise, there’s just too much going on, and they don’t have any time to decompress. There’s a sense of dread both for parents and teens at the idea of letting them miss something, but everyone will survive.”
This may also help parents put their teen’s stressors into perspective. “I see parents coming in incredibly stressed, and that stress trickles down to their own kids and adds to the process,” says Soren. “I’m constantly telling parents, ‘This is not your process. It’s your child’s process, and they have to own it.’ As a parent, they have to be available for help — they can’t let their own emotions and stress overwhelm them.”
One way to do this, experts say, is to sit down with your teen and engage in some positive self-talk with them. “Continually encourage your teens in their efforts, celebrate their gains and listen to them when they talk,” says Eliza Bell, PhD, a psychologist in Birmingham, Ala. “Knowing you love and support them no matter what can mean the world to a teenager, and that feeling of support can also positively impact their performance.”
Encourage them to read for pleasure each day
Your teen may turn to their iPad or phone when they have some downtime, but encourage them to read, even for only a bit, instead. Just six minutes of sustained reading each day can reduce a person's stress level by 68 percent, according to a 2009 University of Sussex study. “Reading a novel or memoir — especially one which affirms a teen's own experiences of anxiety around school and college apps and holiday obligations — has been shown to increase compassion for self and others,” says Melissa Hart, creative writing professor at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H. and author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Novels to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. Here, seven on her short list:
Teach your teen some mindfulness tools
Learning relaxation techniques is one of the best ways teens can build coping skills to address stress and anxiety, especially during the holidays. “It’s very easy to get wrapped up in our emotions and not see a way out of them,” explains Mery Taylor, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s Hospital in Orange, Calif. “Mindfulness asks us to be curious about our thoughts and feelings without judgment or action — to just be in the moment.”
Teens who practice daily mindful breathing, for example, have significantly less test anxiety, according to a 2016 study published in the medical journal PLOS One. When teens begin feeling stressed or angry, for example, she advises them to stop for a moment to center themselves, address and label sensations such as fear, worry or anger. “Validating these feelings to themselves can help less their fight or flight reaction,” she explains. She then recommends trying one of these tools:
Progressive muscle relaxation. This mindfulness technique focuses on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. “Focusing on the difference between muscle tension and relaxation will help you become more aware of physical sensations,” says Taylor. She suggests teens start with their toes, flexing them for five-ten seconds, then quickly releasing them before working their way up the rest of their body.
Visualization. Taylor recommends your teen form a mental image of a place that they find peaceful and calming — like Nana’s house or the beach. “They should imagine themselves in this place, incorporating as many senses as they can, including smell, sight, sound and touch on their journey,” she says. They can then repeat a phrase such as, “I am relaxed” while breathing slowly and evenly to invoke muscle tension release.
Encourage healthy eating and sleep habits
“When I work with students, I tell them to stick to whole foods — anything that comes from the ground (like a fruit or vegetable) or has a mom,” says Nicholas Pomante, RD, a student wellness coordinator at Eastern Michigan University. If it’s in a bag or a box, avoid it. “These types of foods tend to be processed, which can really gunk up the body and decrease focus and clarity,” he explains. They also tend to be higher in sugar, which in turn can trigger blood sugar swings that can impact your teen’s mood.
Ditto for sleep, which can take a backseat during the last few hectic weeks of the year. But a lack of sleep isn’t just associated with higher stress levels, says Belle, it’s also been shown to lower concentration, worsen anxiety symptoms and trigger irritability. “I actually tell students to set an alarm 10 minutes before bedtime,” says Pomante. “This is their sign that they need to get off social media, put their school books away and start their nighttime routine so they can get into bed.”
Watch closely for signs of depression
It’s normal for your teen to be moody during a tumultuous holiday season. Two serious problems linked to teenage depression and anxiety are suicidal thinking (or behavior) and substance abuse, stresses Soren. (Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24.) Warning signs include:
Acting irritable most of the time
Spending more time alone and withdrawing from friends and family
Drop in grades
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities and hobbies they used to enjoy
Eating or sleeping more or less than usual
Frequent complaints of headaches or stomach problems
If you see any of these signs, make an appointment with your family’s pediatrician right away. And take some time to sit and talk with your teen. “It’s important for them to recognize that if they’re doing their best, that’s good enough,” says Shepard. “Let your teen know that it’s expected that they can’t be perfect. Remind them that you know they are doing their best, and that you’re proud.”
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