This post originally was published on December 15, 2016, on the ICTG blog.
I remember the teenage years well. Though I did well in my academic endeavors, I basically “tolerated” school. I lived from holiday to holiday, from winter break to spring break to summer break. One of my favorite breaks was Christmas. This meant slower days, time to be with family, holiday celebrations, opening gifts and more. I loved the tradition, the warmth of relationships and the surprises of the season.
In my years of youth ministry, over the last three and a half decades, I have often stood in front of teenagers and been excited with them for the coming of school holidays and breaks. I have mourned with them when they came to a close.
Somewhere along the way one of our students mentioned they couldn’t wait for school to start again. He or she said being home was hard and life was unstable. School brought safety and structure. This had never occurred to me.
This past weekend I was at a large youth gathering where I prayed with a young guy whose father was likely headed to prison and whose mom had abandoned the kids. Imagine how he feels about all the time at home this Christmas season.
For others the holidays are grim reminders of past events or divorces or deaths. Others are just flat out stressed. Purchasing presents, expensive travel/hassles, shorter days and less sunshine can bring on depression or seasonal affective disorder.
In 2008, the American Psychological association did a poll revealing eight out of ten Americans anticipated stress during the holiday season.
For those who are already experiencing depression, sleep disorders, anxiety, feelings, memories and more the expectations connected with the Christmas holiday bring even more anxiety. The songs, the pictures, the movies and stories all paint idyllic scenes of warmth and love. One writer in the Washington Post said, “Norman Rockwell images of large, smiling families gathered around a Christmas tree are deeply ingrained into our holiday mythology, which holds that every Dec. 25, parents and grandparents and siblings put differences aside and band together like the closing scene of 'It’s a Wonderful Life.'" Living up to this in the midst of trauma can feel overwhelming.
What is the role of the youth leader in helping teenagers to safely navigate the “holiday ocean” which sometimes is calm and other times very turbulent?
Here is a short - and likely incomplete - synthesis of the best ideas I have seen or researched for how a youth leaders can create a climate of healthy response and safety:
1) Provide a space where the challenge of the holidays is acknowledged – Don’t solely talk about the excitement of the days off and the celebration of the holidays. Let your youth know you are aware for some this will be a difficult time. Invite them to let you know how to pray for them in their circumstance. Be available to pray with them and/or point them to leaders who could be available at different times during the holidays so students can reach out.
2) “Bring it down a notch” – Don’t be a part of the problem with over-programming during an already busy holiday season. Church communities sometimes contribute to the stress of youth and families in failing to consider the larger schedule going on around them. Show your youth community the importance of play and rest so they don’t barrel into the Christmas break sick and tired.
3) Challenge your youth, leaders and families to create different memories – Youth leaders can come alongside youth and families by encouraging them to create different experiences over the season. People love to have traditions but some of those traditions are tied to traumatic events or create undue stress. Diplomatically and strategically offer alternatives. One of the best gifts youth and families can give to each other is creating new memories together.
4) Give youth the opportunity to make a list of what they might like to do during a holiday season – Through this exercise you can see what they value and perhaps help them walk toward realizing some of their dreams and desires.
5) Work alongside youth to create an exit strategy – Give tools to youth who may need a “way out” of the stress or trauma they experience. Thinking through options in advance gives them hope and lessens the anxiety of what might be coming.
6) Encourage living in the present – Jesus reminds us “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 5:34b, NRSV). Your youth have legitimate worries about what may be coming given their history but you can be a “cheerleader” for helping them live one day at a time making it be the best it can be.
7) Direct people to www.psychcentral.com/holidays or the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for more resources – These links offer more thoughts and insights.