When we think of Christmas, we often imagine a winter wonderland full of cookies, beautifully wrapped gifts, memories shared among family members, and the simple joy of the season. We don’t often associate it with pain, heartache, and struggles with mental health. But the reality is that Christmas is just like any time of year in that we wake up to face our hurts, painful experiences, stress, and anxiety, but it’s also worse in that, because it’s Christmas, now we’re supposed to be joyful at all times. Life just isn’t that perfect, though we wish it could all wash away for a few weeks in December.
If you’ve landed here today because your child is dealing with mental health issues, or perhaps you struggle yourself, hopefully this can help to sort through the pain and allow joy to shine through this season. Your child is firmly in the Lord’s grasp, and nothing can change that (despite Satan’s attempt to convince us otherwise), so let that be your first thought each and every day as you lovingly walk alongside your child.
1. They don’t want you to fix it, they want you to listen.
We parents tend to be fixers. But our kids don’t want us to “fix” them; they want a loving, gentle, listening ear. One teen shared, “It’s not a parent’s job to fix their child (there are doctors for that). It’s a parent’s job to love, support and encourage their child so they feel a little less broken and alone.”
So the first thing we can do is open up the conversation. If your child is already openly communicating, let them guide the conversation while you offer strength and support. If he or she isn’t upfront about what they’re struggling with, take the initiative in a respectful way. If your teen doesn’t want to talk, try setting the topic aside for a time and coming back to it. Our kids want to know that they’re respected, so let them know that you’re available and would love to talk, but don’t force it if they’re not ready.
One dad created a unique way to open conversation with his kids. He placed a sticky note in a drawer that said, “If you're scared to tell me something, just bring me this note as a reminder that I’m here to support you. I won’t get mad; I will work with you on a solution.” His daughter loved it. “Best way to keep your kids talking to you,” she said. Is there something similar that would work for your family?
2. Family visits are hard.
We often spend time visiting family over the holidays (a great thing!), but if your child is going through a difficult stage in their mental health, it may be a hard time for them to put on a smile and face family members. We may (with good intentions) want to throw our kids straight into lots of family activities in order to combat the dark feelings they’re facing, but what they’re really craving is space this time of year. Allow them the chance to get away, to be alone for a few minutes if needed, to breathe, and to process their emotions.
Dr. Abigael San, a clinical psychologist from the British Psychological Society, said, “Remember that while many people have positive, often nostalgic memories at Christmas, it can be a difficult time for others. Bereavements, losses of jobs, and the pressure to spend a lot of time together after long periods of not seeing family and friends can exacerbate tensions.”
Of course, there is a balance in the space we give our kids. It’s important to recognize when they’ve distanced themselves for too long because while space is healthy and necessary, too much space can be the opposite. So allow your child to read quietly in their room (or whatever they enjoy), but make sure to bring them back into the conversations and life-giving moments with family and friends. Again, the important thing our kids need us to hear is that it’s always nice to be invited and included without feeling like it comes at the expense of their sanity.
3. It’s hard to be joyful, especially when they feel they’re supposed to be joyful.
Christmas songs demand cheerful smiles and joyful dancing, which is hard to fake when the heart is so deep in darkness. And phrases like “Cheer up!” or “Come on, this is fun!” can make our teens feel more like a failure because it’s as if they’re supposed to just be happy. If your child is refusing to participate in family get-togethers, snapping back at simple requests, or is just not interested in much of anything, give lots of grace.
Try to help your teen to find at least one thing they really enjoy doing—cooking their favorite dessert, putting up Christmas decorations, hanging out with the little ones before Christmas dinner—and give them a free pass from the rest. They need you to know that what they’re feeling is hard for you to understand and possibly they don’t understand it themselves.
4. They feel lonely this time of year.
Mental health issues can be isolating. It can make you feel as if you’re completely alone in the world, like no one understands what you’re experiencing. This girl shared her story in which most people viewed her as a successful, happy person when in truth she was going through a major depressive episode.
People post pictures of the happy parts of their lives, making teens feel like they’re not good enough or like something is wrong with them if that’s not how their lives are. These are awful lies straight from the mouth of Satan, but they’re the quickest thoughts that come to mind when all our kids see is perfection in everyone else’s lives except for their own.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is “life with the dull bits cut out." Replace drama with social media, and you’ve got the perfect definition of our current culture. Help your child find peace in the fact that though they feel alone in their struggles, their peers are human just like them, trying to post the happy bits of life while dealing with the dull, difficult ones. And with that, verbalize your constant love and support. Our kids know that we love them, but there’s something about taking a moment to say aloud that you support them, believe in them, and care for them that brings much needed encouragement.
The Christmas season can be a difficult time of loneliness, heartache, grief after the loss of a loved one, anxiety in social encounters, and so on. But it can also be a chance to reflect on the redemptive power of Jesus. Though we feel we can’t measure up, we don’t have to. In times of drought and sadness, we can remember the gift we’ve been given and look back on the year to find the joyful bits, even if most days felt unsurvivable. So use a difficult time in your teen’s life to offer the hope and love of God. Don’t preach at them; simply find bits of truth every now and again to remind your kid of the unchanging promises from the Lord. Plant seeds of truth, step back, pray fervently, and allow God’s love to take root in His time.