How to Manage Family Stress Over Christmas and the Holidays

Christmas and holidays are potentially a triggering time for teenagers who are trapped in an anxiety or depression tangle. Mass gatherings of relatives can be a difficult and trying time for them as they work to figure out how they fit into this larger, extended family.

It’s important for parents to be reflective of the reason for family Christmas & holiday celebrations. Done well, Christmas and holidays can be a source of togetherness and strength, providing your children and teenagers with wonderful memories of crazy cousin time and unconditional inclusion in the wider family. Done badly, these same events can be difficult and trying for everyone and become a time of negative energy, only serving to deepen their depression or tighten their anxiety. If you have a teenager who is struggling with anxiety or depression, don’t be afraid to set firm boundaries around what you are able to commit to this season. Never mind the family traditions – sometimes you need to do what you must in order to get the best outcome for your teenager and their mental wellness.

As much as possible, try to involve your teens in the preparations so they have some ownership of the events. The sooner you can get organised the better so your teenager is able to to process the upcoming events. Make them in charge of an activity for everyone to do – like a treasure hunt, or a Christmas candy walk. Or the sandcastle competition. Games like croquet, petanque and hoopla are always fun to play together.  And give them free licence to create part of the meal – simply leave it up to them to organise with a request for a shopping list a few days earlier.

By giving them little projects to organise and jobs to do they are:

  • Not focusing exclusively on themselves
  • Being perceived as having a sense of responsibility and initiative
  • Allowing for an easy excuse to leave the gathering in order to get things ready

If you have a number of relatives arriving, help your teenager to prepare a few questions that they can fall back on so they don’t feel so awkward. It can be very overwhelming to walk into a room of people you haven’t seen for a while and have to submit to all the hugs and exclamations of “how much you’ve grown” and what feels like a barrage of questions. If you’re not feeling that great about yourself it’s really handy to quickly pass off an answer then change the topic of conversation to something the other person is interested in.

Remind your teenager that the rellies are only asking because they care, they have their best interests at heart. They know your teenager well and are often in a position to offer insight and tailored encouragement. Having said that, do keep an ear out for conversations that end up being full of ‘should’, ‘have to’ and ‘must’. If necessary be prepared to intervene with a request for a job to be done – it may be one of the rare times your teenager willingly arrives in the kitchen to help out.

As much as possible keep the Christmas gathering:

  • To a tight time frame – maybe 5 hours at someone’s house will be enough, instead of staying all day.
  • Alcohol free or alcohol restricted – if there’s any underlying friction alcohol will just make it worse. Some. Adults. Shouldn’t. Drink.
  • Simple, with easy to prepare food – teenagers love to graze and enjoy being part of a gathering that includes wholesome, delicious and simple food which they have helped to prepare and present.
  • Gift free/restricted e.g. only presents for the children. Each family is different, the time taken to sort this prior to the day gives a rich return for everyone.
  • Outdoors – as much as possible be in nature. The calming effects of the beach or a park are enormous.
  • Active – have some activities ready that are age appropriate and yet also not compulsary. Your teenagers can be in charge of organising the annual cricket match/petanque game/treasure hunt for the younger cousins …

As much as possible, make it fun. Christmas and holidays are intended to be a time for all the family to build connections and strengthen relationships that will support and guide them well into the future. The role of relatives to nourish your teenager with a sense of belonging and to strengthen their identity as they move from teenager to young adult is an important part of their lives.

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