The heat is on…don’t wear the happy helmet
The holidays that pack the calendar in the Fall and Winter months, such as Diwali and Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Kwanzaa, celebrate common threads of family, community, faith and gift-giving. Yet for those children and adolescents who struggle to feel good, the holidays can be a time of intense pressure; pressure to be happy, to be social, and to be thankful. If ever there was a “busy season” in the field of child and adolescent psychotherapy, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year would certainly be among the peak times. For the children and teens who come to sit on the therapy couch in my office, the joy of the season is often muted by the persistence of depression and anxiety, the weight of a trauma that has not yet healed, or the pain of a loss for which grief is ever present.
That pressure isn’t isolated to our children. We grow up with certain expectations built into the holiday season. Holidays may evoke in us a belief that our homes have to be just so; clean, tidy and decorated to show festivity and the joy of the season. We may believe in giving the perfect gift, in setting the perfect table-scape and/or filling the air with the scents of baking. We may also put pressure on ourselves and our family to enjoy the heck out of the season, to feel gratitude and to welcome our extended family and our friends into our homes for merriment, whether everyone is on board with it or not!
And pop culture’s influence doesn’t alleviate any of this pressure. The holiday conditioning begins earlier each year as the holiday season creeps into our stores, even before Halloween decorations have been put away. The pressure can be immense, causing anxiety and headaches, snappy moods and unreasonable expectations for everyone in the household. The more gung ho we buy into the holiday season’s expectations, the harder it is for us to have the bandwidth for our potentially struggling children, who might really need our compassion and understanding rather than our impatience (and really, do they ever need our impatience?)
During the holidays, when there has been a loss or trauma, there can be a tendency to go in one of two directions: parents may try to continue to celebrate the holidays exactly as they used to before the loss or trauma, believing that getting back to “normal” is how to usher the family along in their healing. This usually comes in the form of, “It is what (the departed loved one) would have wanted.” Conversely, parents and loved ones may decide to abandon the idea of celebrating altogether to try to honor the dearly departed by focusing on mourning the loss. Neither path really gives a satisfactory experience to the child or teen, nor to the parents who want desperately to do the right thing for the family.
Eleven-year-old Gabe’s grandmother passed away suddenly. She used to live with the family, and provided childcare for him and his younger siblings after school. Gabe cannot remember ever spending Christmas without his grandma and his heart hurts at the mere thought of it. Gabe is more prone to crying when alone, but exhibits irritability and conveys a sense of being completely unaffected by the holidays when he is around his friends, and even his family.
Gabe’s parents have been working hard to create a holiday season rich in family time and festivities to try and help Gabe and his siblings enjoy the holiday despite Grandma’s passing. Gabe, for his part, is sensitive enough to know how hard his parents are trying, and he puts on a brave face, smiles and feigns excitement. But once in the safety of his bedroom, his frustration and grief are evident in his tear-stained face and heavy heart. His deep sadness remains hidden so as to not burden his parents. It’s a lonely place to be.
Cues and clues
So, we see what is happening with our poor buddy Gabe. He is exhibiting signs of depression. Some of the signs of a depressed child or teen include low mood, “feeling down,” difficulty experiencing joy, no longer wanting to engage in previously loved activities, feeling irritable or angry much of the time, often without really knowing why, sleeping too much or too little, wanting to withdraw from friends and loved ones, and having thoughts about death that range from wondering what it might be like to not wake up, all the way to active suicide attempts.
Heightened anxiety is another condition that bubbles up in children and adults alike during the holidays. Anxiety symptoms may involve increased heart rate, difficulty with focus, irritability and a feeling of always being on edge, restlessness, and the inability to settle down and relax. In its most severe forms, as in panic attacks, it can feel as though you are dying. There may be one specific trigger of anxiety, such as being around large groups of people, or a range of triggers, such as whether people are getting along in your group of friends, grades and testing, parental conflict, substance abuse, or fearing the worst at family gatherings.
The experience of trauma of any kind, can also bring with it nightmares and poor sleep, intrusive memories of the trauma and a desire to avoid places, people and events that can trigger these memories. Traumatized children and teens may also experience flashes of immense anger and aggression, or dissociation and complete emotional shutdown.
As challenging as these emotional states may become, the biggest barrier is the lack of connection and sense of isolation they create for our children. The greater the distance our children feel from us, the more troubled they become.
Let it flow, let it go– the healing power of tears
The process of grief typically involves the traversing of five stages, per Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There is typically not a clear, linear progression from one stage to the next; some stages may be skipped while others are revisited before healing occurs.
One of the biggest gifts we can give our children, especially when they’re experiencing mental health challenges such as dealing with the aftermath of trauma or grief, is the space to cry. Oftentimes we become uncomfortable or frustrated with our children’s tears, believing them to be a symptom of a larger problem, something to be soothed or fixed. However, crying allows for the healing of our hearts in the most direct way, the way we were intended to heal from physical and emotional pain. Crying releases emotions by getting to the very heart and soul of them, by turning us inside out and emptying us of that which no longer serves us. It’s healthy! Eight years ago, Dr. Judith Orloff wrote a very insightful article on the health benefits of tears in Psychology Today citing the research of Dr. William Frey, who discovered that our tears contain stress hormones and other toxins that build up during times of stress. When we give our children space to cry, when we create a compassionate space for our children and teens to express their feelings through tears, we are helping them in their healing process.
When emotions are intense, stemming from deep emotional sadness, anxiety or anger, the thinking part of our brains essentially goes “offline” and we have little access to our executive functioning, our reasoning capacities and ordered thought. This is no different in our children, perhaps even more so for them since the pre-frontal cortex of their brains are not yet fully developed, so it doesn’t take much for their executive functions to malfunction, especially when there are deeply disturbing emotions being experienced. A hearty cry, or many cathartic crying sessions over time, met with compassion, warmth– free from a ‘fix-it’ attitude– can dissolve the blockage in cognitions and emotions that is keeping a child from feeling connected and emotionally in balance.
So, if we go back to Gabe and his grief-based depression, what can his parents do to help Gabe feel connected again to his friends and family and to the difficulties the holidays are presenting not just for him, but for the entire family? When working with clients and their parents, I refer them to the work of Patty Wipfler (yes, Patty Wipfler again– I look to her a lot for her wisdom), founder of handinhandparenting.org, and author of Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges. She talks and writes at length about how we can support our children and teens through their emotional release using a process called Staylistening:
“Staylistening means listening all the way through your child’s upset. When you Staylisten, you will move away from fixing things: instead, you will trust your child to recover and figure things out. You will move away from lecturing: you’ll assist your child as she clears away her upset, and functions better than before. You’ll listen because it’s connective, and lets your child know you care. You’ll find that listening is a powerful remedy when your child cries, has a tantrum, or is frantic with fear.”~ Patty Wipfler and Toscha Schore
Now that we have armed Gabe’s family with the knowledge of the benefits of crying, and hopefully alleviated some of the pressure to solve the problems behind the tears through practicing Staylistening, there are a few additional strategies they can try. These strategies honor Gabe’s emotional challenges during the holiday period.
Before the holidays really get underway, Gabe’s parents can ask him what feelings are coming up for him this year as the holidays approach. They should ask specifically how those feelings might be different this year than previous years and whether there are any new worries that have arisen in light of the emotional pain that is being felt. They should ask, “What would a holiday worth celebrating look like for you? What would we do differently, what might we keep the same?” This should give Gabe a sense of ownership over his feelings and a sense of connection by having a say as to how he thinks the holidays should happen this year.
Having said this, they should definitely discuss Gabe’s desired level of involvement. There should also be a very clear picture of expectations that are non-negotiable for his parents, for example they might say, “Gabe, you may spend some time in your room while family is here, but it would be important for you and for us to join us for the family meal.” Setting these parameters ahead of time can avoid heated discussions and sullen faces at the table during family gatherings.
The family might want to invite Gabe to share how he wants to honor his recently deceased grandmother. Gabe might want to leave an open seat at the dinner table for his beloved grandmother, perhaps even put a framed photo of her at her place setting and have each family member sitting around the table share a favorite memory of her.
For children and teens who have experienced a trauma, helping them understand to what extent they can share about the trauma during family gatherings can bring clarity and balance, so they are clear the trauma is not a secret they need to hide, but also they also understand when it might be appropriate to bring it up, and what to share about it.
Self-care can be the gift that keeps on giving…
If you know the season will be challenging due to a family trauma, begin implementing self-care strategies ahead of time, and include your child or teen in the process. Modeling healthy emotional release, sensory self-care and taking time to gather oneself can be invaluable in helping the holidays feel manageable to all. Create a “safe space” for yourself and/ or your child. Invite your child to lie on the bed or couch and close her eyes. Ask her to imagine a peaceful, beautiful place; the place maybe somewhere they have been and felt safe and comforted, or someplace created anew from the imagination. Go through each of the five senses and ask your child what she might see/hear/smell etc in this place and what about that makes the place feel safe. Ask if she is alone or with another person or animal. Ask her what she imagines herself doing in this safe space. When the image is clear in her mind, ask her simply to tell you about it, or even better, to draw it on paper and place the drawing in a place of prominence in her room so she can look at it often. Incorporate visualizing the “safe space” as a part of the bedtime routine. This establishes the safe space and links her relaxation response to that space, since bedtime is usually a moment to wind down and be calm. This daily visualization practice of the “safe space” will help her feel grounded and safe once again during times of stress.
Visualization is a powerful tool to help you and your child regain access to those elusive executive functions and powers of reason. If your child is having trouble expressing anger, worry, or fear, ask your child what color makes him feel the main emotion he is having trouble expressing. Then subsequently ask what color makes him feel calm, relaxed, safe. Perhaps share with him an emotion you yourself are having trouble processing and model the visualization process for him. Once you both have a color that triggers you and a color that calms and relaxes you both, invite him to imagine himself filled up with the color representing the difficult emotion. Then, instruct him to take deep breaths through his nose while he imagines breathing out this color on every exhale, replacing it with inhalations of the soothing, calming color, until his body is now filled with the calm color.
Journaling is another very healing activity for you and your family. If your child finds writing difficult or too closely tied to school and academia, how about some drawing, painting or coloring, a comic strip, some poetry, or song lyrics? The focus is to outwardly express what is felt inside. Maybe instead of each family member having their own journal, perhaps there is a family journal that goes back and forth between parent and child. It can be a fun and loving way to communicate with each other. You might write a supportive note to your daughter and leave the journal under her pillow, and perhaps you will get lucky and she will respond in a similar way.
Perhaps having a change of pace is what helps get us past the manic energy of the holiday season. Everyone can use a spa day! Massage can help soothe many a frazzled nervous system. Touch holds immense calming power and oftentimes no words are needed to lower stress levels and bring about grounding and calm.
If a spa day is a little too much pampering for you and your family’s liking, then bundle up (if you live in a cold climate) and take a winter walk with one kiddo at a time. Spending time outdoors can be very healing. The bracing wind and (hopefully) snowflakes can help ease low moods, and the strong connection brought about by one-on-one time can be the perfect opportunity for your child to target you during an impromptu snowball fight.
Make it your own
Creating your own holiday traditions brings meaning to the season on your family’s terms. This can take shape in anyway you wish, you collectively decide what makes the holidays meaningful for you. Perhaps this means that you support a charity that was a passion for the lost loved one through volunteering time or resources. It might also be meaningful for children to connect with the caregivers who might have cared for their loved one in their final days. This could come in the form of a letter or by baking cookies for them and delivering them personally. Any act of service allows for our children to look beyond their own pain to the needs of another, and fulfill those needs through their own actions.
Given the latest dramatic and tragic fires happening in California, sharing baked gifts with first responders who are working on a holiday is a very concrete way for a child or teen to share a piece of themselves with someone who will truly appreciate it. If you and your family are animal lovers, maybe making homemade dog treats to take the the local animal shelter is the special way your family chooses to give back to the community. Giving back is incredibly empowering for our young ones. It gives them the opportunity to see themselves differently than how they may have previously defined themselves, especially if they are challenged by depression, anxiety, and/ or grief. Gratitude brings home the true meaning of the holiday season in a way that feels heart-centered and positive.
Wishing you all a safe, warm and heart-felt holiday season!
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health issues, contact one of the following:
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
National Helpline: 1-866-481-8425
Text HOME to 741741 at Crisis Text Line: www.crisistextline.org
LGBT National Youth Talkline: 1-800-246-7743, www.glbthotline.org
Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and tea!