Photo by Ben White
“I just want to put up the Christmas tree and call it a year,” said a parent I know, sitting the requisite six feet from me on our back patio.
I chuckled given the timing of our conversation. It was mid-August.
After months of frustrating disruption, remote schooling and social upheaval, many of us optimistically envisioned a somewhat “normal” Thanksgiving and Christmas with our families. But with the recent surge in COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths, treasured family and church holiday traditions seem doomed.
In a typical year, loneliness, fatigue, conflict with parents, school challenges, technology saturation and developmental angst can make kids’ celebration of our Savior’s birth far from “the most wonderful time of the year.” 2020 has piled on a pandemic, making this year anything but typical.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anxiety has more than tripled across all generations since last summer (from 8.1% to 25.5%). Depression in the US has almost quadrupled (from 6.5% to 24.3%). Approximately half of young adults ages 18-24 are wrestling with anxiety or depression.
Research suggests that two-thirds of those dealing with stress and depression usually feel even worse over the holidays. Our viral woes, combined with upcoming “holiday blues,” threaten to level a one-two punch at the family members we care about most.
Withing: A new word to transform our holidays
Replacing the traditional hustle and bustle with small, socially-distanced or virtual gatherings is disappointing, but there is some pandemic light in the darkness. Mandated time at home allows parents, step-parents, household members, and caregivers the opportunity to see more, hear more, and care more deeply. Whether you’re in a living room or a Zoom room, my colleague, Steve Argue, and I recommend you redeem the power of this Advent and Christmas season through withing, a parenting term we introduce in our latest book, Growing With.
We coined withing to mean “growing as a whole family by supporting each other as children grow more independent.” As our teenagers and young adults mature and develop greater agency, withing enables us to provide the unwavering emotional and spiritual support they still need.
Four Christmas gifts withing can bring families
When dealing with anxiety and depression, it’s tempting to retreat into silence and avoid uncomfortable conversations. Withing presses against withdrawal with four deliberate moves. Families that intentionally grow up together won’t grow apart.
Withing makes mental health and struggles discussable.
It’s time to stop worrying that asking our young people about stress or suicide will only make them feel worse. The opposite is generally true; talking about mental health is usually a relief.
Whether we’re knocking on our teenager’s bedroom door or reaching out to our twentysomething on FaceTime, withing challenges us to swim from the conversational shallow end into deeper discussion waters. If you’re unsure how to dive into a conversation about mental health, try asking your young person, “On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst, how would you rate your anxiety?” If they answer a 1-3, explain that’s a normal level of anxiety we all experience from time to time. If they respond with a 4 or 5, you can further explore what’s causing the anxiety, pray with them and assure them them how Christmas means God with us (Matthew 1:23). You can help them identify valuable coping strategies, along Scriptural truths that can serve as emotional and spiritual anchors—such as Psalm 46:10 (“be still and know that I am God”) and Philippians 4:6 (“be anxious about nothing; pray about everything”).
If they name 6 or above, they almost certainly need additional support from you as well as a friend, mentor, youth pastor, fellow church member, and at times, a trained mental health professional. Make withing a goal of your holidays and your homes will become the first places to talk about anxiety and depression, not the last.
Withing invites better questions.
When bringing up any topic, a two-question strategy works effectively. Follow up a question with another slightly deeper question. This shows interest in a young person and increases our chances of having a genuine conversation instead of what feels like an inquisition or pop quiz.
So after you ask, “What’s your favorite show on Netflix these days?,” ask a second question, “Why do you think that show is so popular?” Or, after you ask a young person what they are doing in virtual or in-person youth group this month, invite them to tell you which part helps them feel closest to God. The reciprocity that’s core to withing means you are also ready to answer those same questions, as well as any others that come your way.
Withing embraces the highs and the lows.
Early in the pandemic, my family accepted the advice of my good friend and Fuller Youth Institute teammate, Brad Griffin, to acknowledge both losses and blessings. We kept two lists at our kitchen table and added new pandemic “griefs” and “gratitudes” at every dinner. I think we might start two new lists for the holiday season so the five of us can reflect on the Emmanuel who is “with us” through our highs and lows.
I’m an optimist so I default to discussing the positive. Withing makes space at our family table for all our feelings, not just the warm and fuzzy ones. These 2020 holidays give families new opportunities to name our struggles and victories out loud, making them easier to discuss both now and in the future.
Withing balances both empathy and empowerment.
Like all of us, young people want to be known. Our empathy, or our ability to notice and care, shows family members that in the midst of their stress and anxiety, we see them. We hear them. Perhaps most importantly, we get them.
As we empathize, we will realize our teenage neighbor is anxious after a sub-par volleyball practice not only because he fears he won’t get much playing time, but because he struggles with centering his identity in athletic performance. We are able to link our daughter’s stubborn determination to set her own final exam study schedule with her recent birthday and her growing quest for more independence. Empathy helps us push past the superficial and let the real story emerge.
Empathy without empowerment can lead a person to feeling known, but still stuck. Withing enables us to pinpoint where our family members stand, while simultaneously coaxing them to take a next faithful step.
One of my favorite phrases that merges empathy with empowerment is, “That stinks, and I think you can handle it.” Depending on our context, we can modify that phrase to something like, “If I faced what you face this Christmas, I’d be anxious too. How can I help you figure out what to do next?” Or “That sounds so stressful. How can you experience God’s peace in the midst of all you’re juggling?” The exact wording will change, but withing’s intentional pairing of empathy and empowerment helps us now and throughout the new year.
While this holiday season will be different than most, our physical separation doesn’t need to lead to relational isolation. As you offer young people the gift of growing with them, this is your moment to start new and improved holiday traditions, conversations, and connections.
For additional help: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK or suicidepreventionlifeline.org) is a proven resource for young people in crisis as well as for concerned friends or family members.
In addition, the Steve Fund Crisis Text Line is a helpful service dedicated to the mental health and emotional well-being of young people of color that can be reached by texting STEVE to 741741, or visiting stevefund.org/crisistextline.
Growing up doesn’t have to mean growing apart
Growing With features new research and stories from families nationwide to offer proven and practical answers that help parents navigate the tough new questions emerging with today's teenagers and young adults. Introducing three essential strategies to nurture family faith and relationships, Growing With is a parent's guide to journeying with your kid from adolescence through emerging adulthood.
Amazon Affiliate links are included in this blog post. FYI earns from qualifying orders placed through links in this post.
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