Holidays Can Increase Mental Health or Substance Abuse Issues

sadgirlOur culture portrays the holidays as a happy season filled with cozy get-togethers with friends or family, pretty decorations, tasty food, and the perfect gifts. Unfortunately, that is not the reality most of us experience. The majority of Americans are completely stressed! We are worrying about finding the perfect gifts for everyone, spending too much money, packing in too many holiday events in one month, getting the decorations up, cooking massive meals, and hosting extended family. So if the average person is completely stressed, imagine how dangerous this time of year can be for those who suffer from mental health and addiction issues. Stress is a trigger that can increase these types of problems.

If you have a teenager who is troubled, depressed, or struggling with substance abuse or some other mental health issue, be aware that this is a difficult time for them, and parents should be more vigilant than ever. Here are some things to consider:

Avoid triggers. If your teen has a mental health or substance abuse issue, the holidays are only going to amplify the problem. Try to avoid the most common triggers:

  • Fight boredom. Even teens need some structure. Time off from school with nothing to do increases the chance your teen will engage in risky behaviors. Studies show that substance abuse increases when teens have too much free time on their hands. Make structured holiday plans. This could include fun family outings, baking holiday treats, or wrapping presents.
  • Steer clear of parties. The holidays offer a multitude of party options. Many of these parties will offer alcohol, risky behaviors, or the opportunity to spend time with old friends who have bad habits. If you have a teen with mental health or substance abuse issues, do not allow them to attend parties. Instead offer them fun alternatives. Have them invite a friend to go ice skating the same night as the big party or host a sleepover for New Year’s Eve.
  • Sidestep drama. If you know that Uncle John always creates family drama, choose to not see him during the holidays. If there was a divorce in the family, recognize that the holidays will likely bring hurt feelings for your teen back to the surface. They may have to split time between two households or spend time with new stepparents or siblings. There may be many painful reminders of the past. Anticipate the emotionally taxing elements of the holidays for your teen and do your best to avoid or minimize them.


Set realistic expectations. As you are making your holiday plans, you need to consider your teen’s struggles and challenges and be realistic about how to make the festivities as successful as possible. Your defiant teenager is not going to act better when relatives visit; in fact, they may be worse. Your depressed teen won’t suddenly feel happy during the holidays. Your teenage alcoholic is not able to watch others enjoy a little spiked eggnog. You must alter your holiday plans to minimize family stress and increase your odds for success.

Focus on the positive. Undoubtedly, any family that has faced mental health or substance abuse issues is likely to feel a little negative and focus on a troubled teen’s problems. This can get worse when you are spending more time together over the holidays. Instead, choose to look for good things that make you feel grateful. We are not recommending that you overlook the problems or turn a blind eye, but rather that parents ALSO look for desirable behavior and offer praise to their teen whenever they can. Having an attitude of gratitude can change the entire tone of a family’s dynamics.

Ask your teen for input. All teens, whether they have “problems” or not, are much more likely to welcome and appreciate plans that they developed themselves than plans that are dictated to them. Ask your teen for ideas about how the family can spend time together, what holiday activities they would like to do, and which traditions are important to them. Just because you know your teen well doesn’t mean that you can always anticipate him or her – you may be surprised by his or her answers.

Final thoughts…

Families of teens and young adults facing mental health and addiction issues must remain vigilant around the holidays. But, with a little understanding and planning, the holidays can still be one of the most joyous times of year. They certainly offer the opportunity for parents to spend more quality time with their children, build trust, and create a new vision for how to celebrate each other.

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  • Make an immediate appointment for your teen to see the family physician for a depression screening. Be prepared to give your doctor specific information about your teen’s depression symptoms, including how long they’ve been present, how much they’re affecting your child’s daily life, and any patterns you’ve noticed. The doctor should also be told about any close relatives who have ever been diagnosed with depression or other mental health disorders. As part of the depression screening, the doctor will give your teenager a complete physical exam and take blood samples to check for medical causes of your child’s symptoms.

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