Counselors can help clients prepare for the pressures that come during the holiday season, from a barrage of parties and social events to the temptation to compare themselves with the happy, near-perfect holiday scenes in movies, advertisements or friends’ social media posts.
For clients with seasonal depression, it can all be overwhelming — just at a time when people are expected to be happy and joyful, says John Ballew, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a private practice in Atlanta. Financial stresses, relationship concerns, grief over the loss of a loved one and other life challenges can feel more intense.
“This can be exactly the time that’s going to press on an old wound,” says Ballew, a member of the American Counseling Association.
Cindy Gullo, an ACA member and licensed clinical professional counselor in O’Fallon, Illinois, says she also notices an uptick in depression symptoms in her teen clients during the unstructured weeks of school break for the holidays, as well as anxiety over the return to school in the new year. She coaches clients to create and maintain structure over holiday breaks, including getting up at the same time in the morning and keeping up with the tasks they normally do while in school, such as completing reading assignments or practicing a musical instrument.
For Ballew’s adult clients, setting boundaries — from limiting their party RSVPs and holiday overeating to avoiding toxicity on social media — is often key to navigating the holidays. He also talks about the difference between self-care and self-indulgence with clients when preparing for the season.
“The adage that ‘No is a complete sentence’ is very applicable here,” Ballew says. “Especially if they have social anxiety, three hours at a party can feel totally overwhelming. Plan to go for 20 minutes, say hello to at least three people, then leave and admit you’ve done something difficult.”
On the flipside, clients who don’t receive any holiday invitations can sink into isolation or self-pity. Ballew says he works with clients to challenge themselves. Are they sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring? If so, they can be the one to call friends and initiate get-togethers. They can volunteer. They can choose to attend concerts and other local events on their own.
The holidays — from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day — can also be a struggle for clients who are single and unhappy about it. Again, Ballew says he challenges these thought patterns with clients. “For people who are alone, it’s learning to love being alone and make peace with it,” he says. “Reassess old patterns and beliefs and let go of things that aren’t working. What activities can you do alone? What beliefs do you have that keep you from enjoying things alone?”
Conversations with clients about setting boundaries can also be helpful in preparing for the family pressures and get-togethers that crop up during the holidays. For clients with particularly toxic or unhealthy family situations, this may mean limiting their involvement or staying away altogether, Ballew says. It may even be helpful to create their own new traditions during the holidays.
Sometimes, Ballew coaches clients to think of family visits as a trip to the zoo: What behavior might you see? What can you expect? What responses can you have ready for when family members make inappropriate or triggering comments?
When appropriate, he will create a “family bingo” board with clients, listing predictable patterns and negative behaviors that they can track in their minds. Although they wouldn’t bring the board to family gatherings, its creation is a way to prep for managing potentially challenging situations, Ballew explains.
“Approaching things with a sense that it doesn’t need to be that serious can be helpful,” he says. “With other folks, if the family is seriously dysfunctional, they just need to set boundaries. For example, if dad gets drunk, they don’t need to wait around to be berated. Have a [plan and] a place to go so you aren’t as vulnerable as when you were younger.”
Marcy Adams Sznewajs, an ACA member and LPC with a private practice in Beverly Hills, Michigan, specializes in working with teenagers and emerging adults. Like Ballew, she works with clients to prepare for family interactions over the holidays, with focus placed on empathy and listening skills.
“We do a lot of role-play in anticipation of family events,” she says. “What would happen if your uncle goes down this path and you respond in this way? How might that end? How would you like it to end? What are some different ways you can approach the situation? Teens don’t always have the ability to step back and say, ‘Just because someone doesn’t understand me doesn’t mean that I need to spout off my opinion at all times or respond.’”
“We also talk about understanding other people’s perspectives and life experiences,” she continues. “If they can look at a [family member’s] actions and behaviors from a place of empathy, sometimes it’s easier to sit through a conversation. Or, sometimes, it’s so horrible that all they can do is take a deep breath and get through it. Then we talk about management, mindfulness and ‘this too shall pass.’
“I tell them, ‘I can’t always help fix this, but I can help you cope, and you are strong enough to deal with this.’”
From the Counseling Today archives: “Unhappy holidays: Helping clients through the ‘holiday blues’”
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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