Not All Is Merry & Bright: Teen Depression During the Holiday Season
Sometimes "Tis the season to be jolly" turns into feeling a whole lot like Scrooge. December can be a time of lights, gift giving and Christmas parties with family and friends, but this magical season can leave some feeling blue. Loneliness can be magnified during a season that showcases family, relationships, and gifts. While sadness and feelings of disappointment can be managed with a little time and care, depression is different. Why is feeling depressed during the holiday season different for teens than it is adults?
Depression can be triggered by almost anything: a break up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, guilt over doing wrong, feeling left out by friends, or making bad grades during finals. Nowadays, easy access to drugs and alcohol combined with enormous social pressure are creating an epidemic of stressed-out, depressed teens who self-medicate their low self-esteem and sadness.
"I think oftentimes, when it comes to teenagers, they haven't been through a great deal of grief yet, so they haven't managed much heartache or pain. I don't think anything is more painful than a boy or girl hurting you. It's real to them, and parents shouldn't pass it off," said Glenda Anderson, co-founder of the Paul Anderson Youth Home (PAYH). Adolescents are still learning how to navigate their emotions and manage outside pressures.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 percent of people ages 12 years and older suffer with depression in any two-week period, and approximately 2 million teens attempt suicide each year. Suicide is the leading cause of death among teens, behind unintentional accidents, largely car and homicide. Left isolated, pursuing virtual relationships, and with a growing appetite for new and thrilling experiences, youth are left empty. Emptiness leads to hopelessness and a sense that no joy or meaning will be found in life.
"I felt like no one understood me or could understand me," said PAYH graduate Jared. "I felt like a prisoner to myself. When anything serious came up, I just couldn't talk about it. I was scared about what other people think, because there was no way people could understand me."
How can we come alongside our teens and lift them up during this often difficult season? Parents play a crucial role in detecting warning signs. Sadness is something we all experience, but we can usually recognize when something deeper is taking place. Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain that produces very definite behavioral manifestations. Here are some warning signs that a teen in your family or youth group might be struggling during the holiday season:
- Changes in personality, including feelings of worthlessness and listlessness
- Calling themselves "dumb" or "ugly"
- Poor concentration and having a hard time making decisions
- Expressing sadness and feelings of hopelessness
- Being less interested in personal hygiene and hanging out with friends than usual
- Irrational fears about the future
- Using drugs or alcohol to medicate their depression
Parents, here are some ways you can come alongside your struggling teenager and encourage them:
- Be observant, and try to discover the root. Get to know your child and take note if symptoms have gone on for an extended period of time. Talk to your pediatrician about what you observe, as he or she will have access to supports and resources you might not know of.
- Express to your child that you will always be a constant in their life, no matter what.
- Keep an open dialogue by asking open-ended questions that show you care and are interested in understanding his or her life.
- Has there been a death or separation in the family recently? Seek the help of a professional counselor.
- Be in constant prayer for your teen and for the Lord's strength for you as a family.
- Study Scripture together. The holidays present the perfect opportunity to invite Jesus' story of coming to earth as comfort and hope to a child or teen who feels alone and insecure. In addition to the miraculous Christmas story itself, help them understand who they are and whose they are by reminding them of the following:
"In Christ, I am…
- Created in God's image (Genesis 1:27)
- Fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14-16)
- The light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16)
- A child of God (John 1:12)
- God's workmanship (Ephesians 2:10)
This holiday season, do not fight this fight alone. Listen to the teens in your life. Know what is going on and try to understand what they are going through. When they express feelings of hopelessness, listen to them. When they feel trapped in their emotions, gently reassure them of your love. When they make statements about everyone in their life being better off without them, confront this as simply not true. Get help from family members, church friends, counselors, and trusted friends. During the holiday hustle and bustle, be engaged in your special teen's life and help discover what the root issue really is.
Drew Read is COO of Paul Anderson Ministries, a non-profit Christian organization located in Vidalia, Ga. Its purpose is to instill hope, structure and support in families through various transformative programs, all rooted in the powerful legacy of its founders, Paul and Glenda Anderson. At the core of the organization is the heart of what it does—the youth home. Based on this foundation of strength, love and endurance, PAYH heals hearts and homes across the country through counseling, parenting resources, events and conferences. Learn more about the services PAYH provides.