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Teen Mental Illness and the Holidays

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

‘TIS THE SEASON OF peace, joy, and love. But if you’re a kid who struggles with a mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder, you may not feel like spreading the good cheer. Or imagine being a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and having the unnerving task of sitting still through excruciatingly long services or holiday performances, all while hoping that you don’t make it on the naughty list. Many adults don’t look forward to all the festive events and rest assured, kids with ADHD most likely don't have it on their wish lists either.

Frequently for kids, home for the holidays means no routine, irregular sleep schedules, lots of sweets, crowded places, and being around rarely-seen, relatives. We're continually being reminded that everything should be merry and bright because "it’s the most wonderful time of the year." But that's not necessarily the reality for many.

For so many kids, this time of year is far from a wonderful life, and miracles seem nowhere to be found. As a school counselor, I knew that the week before a holiday break would stir up a lot of angst with many children, and I've found that to be true in private practice, too.

It’s a disheartening fact that far too many of the nation’s youth struggle with one or more mental illnesses. According to a study published in The Journal of Pediatrics in March, about 1.9 million kids ages 3 to 17 years have been diagnosed with depression and 4.4 million have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

It’s not just anxiety and depression kids struggle with, either. Kids struggle with other conditions like ADHD and eating disorders as well. According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, nearly 6.1 million kids ages 2 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD.

While not as common, eating disorders are also frequently diagnosed in adolescents. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, teens are among those at the highest risk for an eating disorder; as many as 1 in 10 young women suffer from an eating disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 3% of youth ages 13 to 18 have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, and most of them are girls.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology finds that, within the past decade, the number of youth with mental health disorders has more than doubled.

What’s more concerning is these numbers aren’t an accurate reflection of how many kids have a mental illness, since the majority of cases actually go unreported. According to a 2019 study published in JAMA Pediatrics, about half of all children with a mental health disorder did not receive the necessary treatment for their condition from a mental health professional. It's a stark reminder that far too many youths are struggling emotionally, psychologically, and physically.

For these kids, the pressure of the holidays can worsen and exacerbate their conditions.

If you are the parent of a child who suffers from depression, anxiety, or another mental health disorder, you know all too well that the holidays do not bring out the merry in your child. That said, there are some ways you can help support your kid’s mental health during the hustle and bustle of the season.

Here's what I'd suggest helping your child find peace during the holidays:

Find the Calm in the Storm

We are creatures of habit and for the most part, we crave order. When things get chaotic, as often happens during the holiday season, we get stressed and so do our kids. Be mindful of how you're feeling, and imagine that your child may be experiencing what you are feeling tenfold. So, if you're heading to your relative’s house for that dreaded holiday gathering, you most likely aren’t the only one feeling that way.

Be open and honest, and share your feelings with your teen. You can even discuss how long you're planning on staying, and come up with safe spaces to allow your teen a moment to retreat. Who knows, you may even want to join them in their escape.

Maintain a Healthy Sleep Schedule

With many schools being on lengthy winter breaks, it’s easy to stay up late and sleep away the day. This disruption in the sleep cycle can affect a kid’s mental health. Sleep-deprived teens may turn to substances like caffeinated drinks, including coffee or energy drinks, to put some pep in their step, but these drinks only provide a temporary fix.

Also, be wary of late-night electronic use as it too can wreak havoc on a sleep schedule.

In a study published in the journal Sleep Medicine, youth who are on their devices at least five hours a day were 50% more likely to not get enough sleep. And insufficient sleep is associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, obesity, and even poor school performance. Kids with mental health issues need adequate sleep, and according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, for teens, that's defined as eight to 10 hours per night.

Another thing to consider is whether your child takes medication in the morning. If that's the case, you'll want to stick with your routine, since if you don't, it could make the transition back to school tougher. So work hard to help your child maintain a healthy sleep schedule over the break.

Discourage Isolation, But Let Kids Limit Social Activities

If you have packed the day with fun-filled activities, don’t get discouraged or frustrated if your teen tries to bail out. Sometimes all the holiday excitement and festivities can be overwhelming, and too much can be counterproductive and even make your teen feel worse.

Resist excess. Doing things in moderation can make the holiday season more enjoyable. While you shouldn't let your teen’s desire to hibernate keep you from challenging him or her to go out with the family, don’t push your child to do too many activities.

Talk with your teen about your plans and negotiate the holiday events that you expect your child to attend. Even though kids may balk at going places or having a house full of people, it's still good for them to participate in some of the most important seasonal traditions. At the same time, you should also let your teen know that some holiday activities are optional.

Remember, too, that it's not just some teens who struggle during the holiday season.

According to a recent survey from Total Brain, a mental health and fitness app, more than one-third of adults in the U.S. would happily skip the stressful holiday season. If it’s affecting that many adults, think about how it impacts youth who struggle with mental illness.

Most kids who face mental health challenges would like nothing more than to feel tidings of comfort and joy, and above all, desire to feel peace. While there's no guarantee that they will experience this throughout the holidays, we can provide them with acceptance, understanding, and, most importantly, our unconditional love.

Courtesy of US News


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