By Dr. Alison Roy, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
The holiday season is stressful in different ways for so many of us. Young people are not immune to this overscheduled, overwhelming time of year. From high school students to those in their mid-twenties, we all feel the pressure with too much to do and not enough time to do it. Combine this with family we don’t always see, ever-present academics and future looking pressures (think finals, college decisions, graduate school questions, and entering the job field) – it’s a recipe for additional holiday stress. Here are some strategies to positively keep you and your young adults talking and building resilience during this time of year.
Make a family plan before social outings
How can your parents be helpful when relatives start asking too many or the wrong questions? The plan doesn’t need to be written down or even set in stone, but I find the process of simply chatting about ‘what people could ask’ helps us feel less anxious when those questions arise. It’s not mandatory to know what your future may look like or where you’re going to school or what you might do after graduation. Simply saying “thanks for asking and I’m focused on being happy in this moment,” or something similar, is enough. You can even add “but I’ll keep everyone posted” if you want.
As demonstrated above, part of that plan might be gently reminding other family members to stay present. Don’t ask where I’ll be in a year, ask what I’m really into right now. Favorite band? What are you looking forward to in the next month or two? What’s something that you’re excited about right now? Encourage others to stop focusing so far into the future and learn about the young person you are right now.
Leave the technology at home
Make a conscious effort to decrease screen time and increase in-person interactions. No, Facetime doesn’t count. Humans are flock animals and need physical in-person connection to feel calm. Put down those phones and do in-person activities with friends. The holiday season is great for this – there are so many activities built into this time of year. Bonus points if you do activities that ignite the five senses. The five senses are the language the brain uses to communicate during times of stress. Soothe that stressed brain by talking to it with your sense of smell, touch, taste, hearing, or sight.
That’s right, you heard me. Play is the only time our brain is fully allowed to be liberated, unscheduled and uninhibited. We spend so much of our day trying to stay put together, in front of others, and on schedule. Give your brain, and yourself, a break. Throw some snowballs, engage in old family traditions, bake some cookies, watch old holiday movies, play board games, put on T. Swift and dance around the living room, go ice skating and fall…a lot. Okay maybe that’s just me, but seriously be playful and put those phones away. Do it so you can truly let loose. If you or your young adult have cringed at these suggestions or said “I don’t have time for that,” then I’ve done my job. Make time. Your brain needs it!
Take control in small ways
Look at your list of things that are stressful and decide what you can control, what you can’t, and how you can advocate for yourself. Our brains really don’t like the unknown or uncertainty so try and get as much information as you can about family gatherings or expectations. This allows our brains to know what to expect and how to schedule around demands others place on us. Parents, this one is on you a bit. Young people need to know what they’re expected to do and may need help in the form of repeated and/or written reminders. When we’re stressed, our memory doesn’t work as well and we may need more help remembering what we need to do.
Don’t survive, thrive
Know what makes you thrive and what puts you into survival mode. Are you a pure extrovert who needs a lot of human time and large get togethers to feel energized? Are you an introvert who thrives when spending time in quieter settings? Are you an introverted extrovert who likes social gatherings but gets recharged from being alone too? Figure out where you fall on that spectrum and then create a holiday survival strategy. If you’re an introvert facing a weekend of family and social gatherings, make sure you advocate for some alone time before the events, after you get home, or even during the party. This could look like stepping out for 15 minutes and listening to some of your favorites tunes or Facetime with your bestie in the car before rejoining the party. If you pre-plan with parents beforehand, it demonstrates self-advocacy and doesn’t turn into an argument if you need to leave the party.
Be connected – don’t be right
During the holiday season we may have to interact with family members or friends who don’t share our beliefs. In this divided world, this can lead to awkwardness, tension, or even disagreement. If you find yourself facing this or worrying about it, remind yourself to focus on maintaining the relationship instead of being right. People with opposing views can still love one another if mutual respect and communication exist.
The takeaway message: young people – it’s okay to ask for help and ask questions about what you don’t know or about what might be making you anxious. Parents, it’s okay to answer those questions, make those plans, team up with your young person, and validate their experience. It’s okay to do this, even if what makes them nervous doesn’t make you nervous and if you don’t understand what they’re going through.
When in doubt, ask “Do you need to be heard, helped, or hugged?,” and go from there.