A parents’ guide to navigating the holiday season with teens

By Angela Cutrer

sponsored by Stonewater Adolescent Recovery Center

Though Christmas is commonly thought to be a time for joyful get-togethers and eager family bonding, not everyone embraces the holidays with cheer. Teenagers, who are out of school and without a great deal of structure, might be more prone to engage in unhealthy activities and behaviors.

“Post-COVID lockdown, across the country we are seeing increased levels of anxiety, depression, suicidality and substance use,” said Elizabeth Fikes, co-founder of Stonewater Adolescent Recovery Center. “The holidays can be triggers for these things, and parents today are often perplexed about shifts they see in their child’s personality and behaviors. It’s important to be observant and to know what to look for.”

Dr. Blaise Aguirre, assistant professor in psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry and consulting psychiatrist for Stonewater, suggested the single biggest warning sign is a change of behavior. “If your child was gregarious and becomes isolated, or used to sleep normally and now sleeps all the time, those deviations are warning signs,” he said.

“Unfortunately, many parents think being totalitarian is the only way to get answers. However, parents’ superpower is just being curious and [simply] asking in a curious way. For example: ‘You used to spend time with your friends – I was wondering if anything was bothering you?’ Instead of tiptoeing around your child, just ask. Be curious.”

Dr. Aguirre encourages parents to then be patient. “Give your child time to reflect after you’ve asked them questions,” he said. “Don’t be insistent for an immediate answer. Reflection is good for both children and parents.

“Kids can get stressed – anyone under 25 might feel stressed about the holidays. They are back from college, or off from school, they have all these plans and relatives visiting and frankly, they’d just rather be with their friends. It all depends on the age of the child.”

With more time on their hands, there is the risk of isolating from family, Aguirre described. “People have different stress relievers,” he said. “For some it’s alcohol or weed. For others it might be exercise. For that particular person, that behavior relieves stress, and of course, not all stress relievers are healthy. They can have different impacts.”

According to Aguirre, it’s very healing when there are clear and healthy boundaries for children and adolescents.

“Practice what you preach,” he added. “It makes it fair that way.” For example, it’s contradictory to tell your child he or she spends too much time on their phone, when you are frequently on your phone, or to warn of the evils of alcohol while you yourself open another beer.

“Instead of only finding differences, find ways to bond with your children,” Aguirre suggested. “Remember that the more you shut down, the more they will disengage. In place of just laying down hard, firm rules, watch a movie together and talk. Make a commitment to spending time together and really engaging with each other while they are home. Take a walk and listen. Suggest things you could do together. Ask them what’s going on in their lives and what they are thinking. Plant that seed in your child’s mind that you are willing to listen, reflect and engage.”

That also means bringing your concerns to your child in a matter-of-fact yet caring way. Aguirre noted, “People are scared to be direct with their kids,” he said. “Be honest and say you’re concerned – that you’ve noticed a change from how they were and let’s talk about that.”

And then wait for them to answer. Remember to give your child time to think over what you’ve said – every person needs time to reflect.

Instead of demanding to know why something has happened, sit down with your child and discuss what led you both to that moment and the fact that you can be a generous and respectful ally. Back that up by remaining open to discussion.

However, sometimes a child’s situation becomes so problematic that additional help is needed.

“When parents find themselves out of their depth, it’s important to reach out for help,” Fikes said. “Sometimes parents are reluctant to seek advice from a professional or someone they trust because they feel it’s highlighting their parenting mistakes. But this is simply not the case. Parents are human and every child is different, particularly now that access to technology and substances are pervasive. We at Stonewater can be a resource for navigation of the holidays for teens and their families, and for concerned parents who may be seeing behaviors they’ve never seen before and are thinking, ‘What can we do?’ Parents can also reach out to a local therapist or treatment program, often for free and confidential consultations.”

Aguirre said parents should especially be concerned by a child’s isolation, defiance with siblings and parents, conduct changes and especially high-risk behaviors.

To learn more visit https://www.stonewaterrecovery.com/  or  the facebook page https://www.facebook.com/StonewaterAdolescentRecoveryCenter/

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