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Combatting Youth Holiday Stress Through Community Connection & Self-Care

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It may be “the most wonderful time of the year” — but for many of us, the holiday season brings a wave of stress and anxiety as our to-do lists swell and our shopping lists grow ever longer. Recent studies show that even kids and teens aren’t immune to holiday stress, and that can spell trouble for those without adequate coping skills and support systems. While routines are interrupted by winter breaks and adults are preoccupied, young people may be at heightened risk for substance use as a way to self-manage their emotions.

Here, we’ll take a look at potential triggers for holiday stress in teens and adolescents, and explore two powerful ways of combatting it: by getting involved in the community through volunteer work and by making time for self-care.

About the Holiday Blues

For most adults, the causes of holiday stress need no explanation. Balancing the demands of shopping, decorating, cooking, and hosting or attending events—on top of our regular schedules—can be overwhelming and exhausting. Trying to achieve an unrealistic vision with limited time and money can itself be a recipe for depression and anxiety, while feelings of loneliness, grief, and sadness tend to feel especially amplified during this season.

Though their stressors may differ from those of adults, young people, too, can experience the holiday blues—and this is especially true for kids and teens who already live with or are at-risk for mental health conditions. Even just the change in routine—which may come with staying up later, eating meals at irregular times, and having less structure to their days—can cause a shift in kids’ moods, while the extra time at home makes them more likely to be affected by the stress and tension they see their parents experiencing.

Kids might also be anxious about the holiday gatherings to come: having their home full of extended family they don’t know well; facing an onslaught of questions from relatives about uncomfortable topics like dating and college applications; even, simply, the pressure to eat a particular food they dislike.

With so many potential stressors, it’s no surprise that substance misuse and relapses tend to peak among both adults and teens during the winter holidays.

The Power of Community: Why Volunteering Helps

While our thoughts can become consumed with gifting and getting during the holidays, volunteering can help us break out of this frame of mind, grounding us with a sense of greater purpose and connectedness.

For kids and teens, the benefits of volunteering are immense, and not only because it provides structure to their time while keeping them away from drugs and alcohol. The experience can help them through feelings of social isolation and loneliness, deepen their sense of empathy, teach them practical skills, and shift their focus from the personal to the community. Those feelings, a May 2023 study found, translate into measurable results: kids who had volunteered in the past year were much more likely to be considered “flourishing,” with lower odds of anxiety and behavioral problems. In short, volunteering can be a surprising source of fulfillment during a stressful time.

During the holidays especially, there are abundant opportunities for the entire family to volunteer together. In addition to spending quality time together, family volunteer activities can fill the season with a deeper meaning. It can remind us to be grateful for what we have, both material and non-material, rather than worrying about what we can’t afford or achieve.

Explore options at local homeless shelters, food banks, nursing homes, and animal shelters, or visit to find opportunities in your town.

The Power of Self-Care

Giving to others is such an essential part of the holidays that we often forget to prioritize our own well-being. Putting ourselves on the back burner, however, is likely to enhance feelings of stress and depression, leading quickly to burn-out. Taking time for self-care is not selfish; it’s crucial for maintaining balance and managing stress—and it’s important that we teach this to our children, as well.

At the start of the season, work with older kids and teens to create a holiday self-care plan with activities they enjoy and effective relaxation methods. Having a plan in place will help them remember that they are important, even when they feel “lost” amidst the holiday hustle and bustle. It should also give them strategies to decompress when they feel overstimulated or overwhelmed, both during the holidays and throughout the year. These strategies might include:

  • Having a cup of tea in a quiet room
  • Meditating, doing yoga, or practicing mindfulness
  • Going for a leisurely walk
  • Jogging or working out
  • Journaling
  • Engaging in a low-stress hobby
  • Connecting with a friend or loved one
  • Setting limits on the number of events and activities you agree to attend
  • Avoiding triggers when possible
  • Taking some time alone

Self-care also means prioritizing your physical health, so remind kids about the importance of getting good nutrition and enough sleep each night. Together, these practices can help us remain calm and upbeat, and make us less likely to turn to alcohol, nicotine, and other harmful substances when we feel stressed.

How Else Can Parents Help?

Make Time to Talk—and to Listen

Although this season is busy, make time for conversations with your child. Discuss your family’s holiday plans, and make space for them to express what they like about your traditions, what they dislike, and what they may be anxious about. Remember that even small worries can loom larger during the holiday season, when we feel like we should be at our merriest. This is your chance to work out a mitigating plan together and to explore compromises that could make the holidays happier—such as allowing them to skip a certain gathering or obligation.

Manage the Flow of Alcohol During Parties

Holiday parties often mean that alcohol will be readily available, and teens may feel tempted to manage their stress by sneaking in a few drinks of their own while the adults are preoccupied. But for adults as well as youth, research shows that using alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis can increase feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, rather than easing them.

If you are hosting a holiday party:

  • Familiarize yourself with Connecticut’s Social Host Law, and never allow kids to drink alcohol at your home—for their safety and your own. 
  • Keep alcoholic drinks in a single location—ideally, one that’s central to the gathering, rather than an out-of-the-way garage fridge.
  • Be careful about the message you send: Don’t make it seem that you need alcohol to “survive the holidays” or that alcohol is a necessity for a good party, and try not to overindulge.

Manage Your Own Stress

As a parent, you are the single biggest influence on your child’s decisions. If you stress out during the holidays, chances are that they will, too. Instead, show kids that spending time together, honoring family traditions, and celebrating the meaning of the holidays is more important than things being picture-perfect. Find connectedness within your community and make time for self-care—not only will you feel better, but you’ll be in a better position to support your teen as well.

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