Mental Health Challenges Don’t Take a Holiday

Nov 15, 2023 by Anastasia Sullwold Ristau, PhD, LP
Oh boy, the holidays are just around the corner. Many of us parents say it every year – how is it already coming up on Thanksgiving and aaaaack that means the next holiday is just __ days away!  It’s another interesting example of the contrast that represents the on the surface social-media presence of public parenting these days vs the authentic, genuine internal experience most parents have as their reality. Few talk about it or acknowledge it, but the truth is – while there are many redeeming, beautiful pieces, for some, that add sparkle and joyful moments to the holidays, there are also multiple, complicated layers that make this a dreaded, exhausting, pressure-filled time of the year for many, many others. There is so much buildup and excitement for some, especially kids, but we all know that with that buildup must come the disappointments, let downs, and reality of the holiday events rarely going as envisioned. Already we begin hearing the “shoulds”, “musts”, and feeling the added layers of parent-guilt for all kinds of real and made-up expectations on ourselves and others. As if we didn’t already have enough guilt built in from parenting-day-1?  Maybe in part this is because various cultural pockets that involve pressure to be, act, and engage in a certain way. Maybe it’s the in-your-face greed we see surface in alarming intensity with our kids or others, or the competitive gift-giving that unfolds for others.  Or maybe it’s those well-intentioned but often insensitive statements with implied hope of “It’s going to be alright, you just need to think positive and feel the holiday spirit!” that people tend to spit out when thinking about or talking to those struggling with mental health issues.

Mental Health Challenges and the Holiday Season

Depression, anxiety, OCD, panic attacks, ADHD, autism, and so on — none of these have an on-off switch, none comes with an owner’s manual and certainly not a parenting-manual, and for goodness’ sake — none of these goes away just because the holidays are here. In fact, quite the opposite. I see it every year like clockwork, both professionally as well as within my personal life. Holiday months often bring us some of the most challenging parenting situations on the planet.  Holiday seasons mean the weeks leading up to the holidays bring substantial changes to normal school-day routines – parties, treats, food drives, activities out of the usual… and don’t even get me started on all of the changes that happen outside of school as families amp up for the holidays!  Trips to see Santa, work parties, family parties, gift exchanges, cookie bakes, on and on and on. All delightful and joyful on the surface, all at a mental health-bank cost in one way or another. Add to that the social media in-your-face presence that automatically creates negative backlash, and, yikes!  THEN there are the breaks from school, themselves. Perhaps counter-intuitive, for many students AND the adults who live with those students, this change in pace comes with a significant mix of both relief and challenges that at times press the patience of even the most experienced.  Changes in routines can be unsettling, increase hyperactivity, begin a ripple effect of decline in behaviors like increased sibling fighting, yelling, defiance, oppositional ‘my way or the highway’ power struggles or alternatively lead to a sleeping marathon of the I’m-just-going-to-sleep-this-away-and-stay-hidden variation… not because that is the goal or desire, but simply in response to all of the changes and undercurrent of emotional ups and downs.
For those wrestling with grief, depression, or anxiety — holiday seasons may actually amplify the struggles and challenges present for those with mental health symptoms or at least make those suffering from them feel like the difficulties are in the spotlight during these next several months.  Moving through the holidays where it appears “everyone else” is happy or appearances suggest others are spending time with loved ones when another feels more isolated and alone, can actually make someone feel more depressed and anxious. Anticipation of upcoming family or friend gatherings, even when on the surface appearing light and fun, can cause great angst, panic, or worry.
While these times of year can be hard for even neurotypical kids, the holidays are particularly challenging not just for those who live their lives with mental health disorders but also for those who care for them such as parents, grandparents, and teachers.  Decorations, holidays smells, blasting music every which place you turn, overly busy wall-to-wall-people environments, and holiday oriented gatherings invading even the most protected times rob many of opportunity to recharge as needed and overstimulate even those with the highest of tolerances. We eat things we don’t normally eat, we sleep less because we’re excited, over-stimulated, or over-scheduled.  We move less because, well, hello. We just do.  The many changes to routines and unpredictable shift in daily expectations can feel highly unsettling and uncomfortable with a confusing mix of natural excitement and thrill whirled within.  Although some may work hard to hide this for fear of being negatively judged, for many, this an incredibly challenging, exhausting, and difficult time — and guess what — those of you feeling this way, you are not alone!

There is a lot we can do to mitigate the stress of the holiday season. Here are four tips for parents: 

#1 Be Real

It’s amazing what a little bit of authenticity can do in terms of starting a wave of honest connections. It starts with you. Each time you express your truth and are authentic with your trusted others, you open the door for someone else feeling inspired to do the same. Imagine the positive ripple you can start in removing the stigma of being human during a time of year that is both beautiful and horrible all at once! If you are feeling a struggle, chances are others are feeling that too and will appreciate feeling connected to you with the “me too” experience!  The benefits of being real in most situations will far outweigh the risks. We have to stop the pretending – this only feeds the myths that just serve to make everyone else feel less than and like a failure. Just because the holidays feel hard, does not mean you are a failure!  I promise you – imperfect parenting is the worlds’ greatest known secret just waiting to be acknowledged!  Actually – I’d say the same for adulting in general. Let’s make embracing of “Adulting My Best” the latest rage!  The gratification and validation that is instantly gifted to you and those around you when you take the risk to be real holds value beyond words. I promise.

#2 Lower the Bar

Yep! You heard it here, folks. Doctor’s orders – you do not have to be the best, you do not have to give the most, you do not need to be responsible for finding the perfect most amazing gift on the planet, and no your kid’s life will not be ruined should you not get them that popular, highly coveted gift/toy/gadget/videogame etc… that they think they want so badly and “everyone else” has or will be supposedly getting!  It has to start somewhere, and maybe it starts with you.  Pave the way to decreasing the focus upon all of the material goods and replacing that with gifts of relationship, time, and service.  Know that when you do this, you may be building the foundation needed for your kids to truly appreciate material gifts for the meaning that gift giving represents.

  • HINT — No kid needs 50 new toys. Heck, no kid need 15 new toys! By the 10th present many are simply going through the motions anyway.  Why not focus upon just a few more meaningful presents that will be much more appreciated and actually played with more than 10 seconds <gasp!>.  Instead, let’s embrace the comments of comparison to friends or neighbors as opportunities for emotional growth and development of appreciating the value of what is given to them.  Trust me, I do understand that it literally hurts our parenting hearts sometimes to see our kids disappointed or sad. But I imagine it hurts so much more to see the outcome and consequences of children becoming greedy and taking for granted all the many privileges they live within their lives.  Give them the gift of not automatically giving them absolutely everything money can buy, just, because they wanted it.
  • HINT #2 — That family meal you’re stressing over making just right, in a perfectly cleaned to a everyone-knows-that-no-family-ever-sustains-a-house-that-clean kind of level?  NOPE. Lower the bar!  No family needs a perfect meal to be happy. Heck, which holiday events are people most likely to remember? The ones that have something about them that is unusual, unique, or was not as expected in good, bad, or even ugly ways!  If you want your holidays to be memorable, do something different than usual and for goodness sake do not allow every piece of your holidays to be anywhere close to the ‘vision of perfection’ that you see or hear about on social media, movies or TV.  Consider every ‘mistake’ or ‘oops’ as a gift you are giving for this to be a memorable experience!

#3 Disconnect from your gadgets and Reconnect with people in your life

Take a slow, deep breath of courage and reach out regularly, randomly, and often  — keep it brief, but inviting, warm and with goal of connecting and supporting. This is especially important for those struggling themselves with a mental illness or for those caring for or parenting someone with mental health challenges.  Take the pressure off – there is no exact right thing to say or do. Focus upon being present with them in that moment, joining them either quietly or in conversation. You don’t have to make it better or take away their pain.  You can’t.  But you can express understanding of their difficulty. You can express your own hope for a better future, that life inevitably is nothing but change and in that means opportunity for improvement.

#4 Recharge with “Mini-Breaks”

Engage in mini-breaks for your mind, body and spirit — 3-5 minutes of pausing the chaos or business of daily life to simply breathe, be quiet with your words, noticing what is going on around you and within you.  Focus for a few minutes on something that gives you peace or at least a momentary feeling of happiness. Imagine a person in your life from past, present or future, whom gives you a sense of love and appreciation. Repeat a phrase offering that person loving-kindness, then repeat the same phrase offering yourself the same loving-kindness imaging those words move through your breath down through and around your heart, surrounding it like a big, comfortable, warm hug.  Model this for your family and you may see them begin to do the same thing, or perhaps even join you during your mini-break times.

Other Ideas for Parent Stress Management

  • Do something kind for someone else every day.
  • Reach out and offer to do something with someone you normally do not spend time with.
  • Schedule time to do something with somebody else, get out of your comfort zone!
  • Carve out time to get physically active.
  • Be mindful of what you put into your body.
  • Take time to rest. Get your sleep.
  • Be aware of what you feed your brain and your kids’ brains. Is it helping or hurting?
  • Develop a mantra each week that you can focus upon with goal of self-compassion, grace, forgiveness, positivity, self-acceptance, or something similar that you can repeat and make your focal point during times of stress or challenge that week. My favorite trick?  I use Google Images and type in a keyword that I’d like to focus upon that week, and bam – instantly endless examples of sayings and images I can scroll through until I find the right one to inspire me for that week.  I literally do this every Sunday evening. It. Really. Helps.

Reminder to parents: To have struggles and challenges is to be human, we need the hard times in life to experience true joy. Have compassion, especially towards yourself. 

Breathing with you,

‘Dr. A’

Anastasia Sullwold Ristau, PhD, LP is the Director of Psychotherapeutics as well as a licensed psychologist at PrairieCare’s Center for Integrative Mental Health.

Visit our blog for content on all things mental health related.

Mental Health Challenges Don’t Take a Holiday
10 Benefits of TMS for People with Depression
The Top 10 Reasons Why PrairieCare Is a Great Place to Work