Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christmas: A Not-So-Merry Time for Many Students

With the holiday season and it's many pressures to be merry and happy bearing down us, I can't help but think: Christmas is not a very merry or wonderful time of year for many of our students. Thus, we would do well to remember this during the holidays.

Go ahead and call me Scrooge, but I've never been a big fan of the holidays. Even as a child, I found the season brimming with pressure: Should I spend Christmas with my mom or with my dad? Would my father and step-mother fight about having Christmas with the grandparents? Will Grandma Cowen give my brother a trash can for Christmas again this year?

That last one is now a source of humor and jolly reminiscing for my brother and me, but at the time, it wasn't very amusing to a twelve-year-old boy.

Finding the perfect gift and negotiating the mall rush seems a trite concern when we consider that many of our students live lives more similar to those of Tiny Tim in Dickens's A Christmas Carol than Macaulay Culkin's character in Home Alone.

During the holidays, many suffer increased levels of stress, depression, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and substance abuse.

Paradise High School in Paradise, California offers a helpful list of behaviors that may signal a child in distress and in need of some extra care during the holidays: 

Concerning Behaviors

  • A change in habits (sleeping, eating, studying, activity level)
  • Marked personality change
  • Depression
  • Start, return to, or increase in drug or alcohol abuse
  • Cutting off friendships
  • Expressing "I don't care" attitude
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Isolating from loved ones and friends
  • Talk about hurting themselves
  • Unusual neglect of personal appearance
  • Giving away prized possessions or throwing away important belongings
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
  • Frequent complaints about physical symptoms (fatigue, headache, stomach upset, etc.)
Too often, the holidays are a time of high expectations and disappointing outcomes. 

Dr. Orman's website offers a detailed list of potential problems and coping mechanisms for the holidays. 

We can help our students by having an honest dialogue about some of these issues. 

We can give ourselves and others a well-deserved break during the holidays. Here's how:  

1. We all feel the pressure to be happy and jovial during the holidays. There's nothing wrong with you if you have a humbug attitude during this season of high expectations.

2. Take on only the responsibilities and extra duties you feel comfortable with. It's okay to say "no" when your proverbial plate is full. 

3. There is only one person we each control: ourselves. You have no control over Uncle Billy Bob and his pet corn-mash-eating goat. Live and let live during the holidays. 

4. Live in the present. Each holiday is unique, and we're wise not to let either good or bad memories interfere with the present. Our nostalgia for the past can keep us from enjoying the uniqueness of the moment. 

5. If possible, escape unpleasant past memories by taking a trip. Since I'm not a fan of the holidays, my husband and I generally take a holiday vacation. Last year we took a cruise, but this year we'll be home. I'm spending the extra time writing. So if you can't escape physically, plan a mental journey. 

6. Avoid blame when things go wrong. Thanksgiving day our neighbor's house flooded when he dishwasher leaked. My neighbor's daughter, posted a note on Facebook, giving thanks that the family pulled together to overcome a potential crisis. Such events make good stories in time. 

7. Expect the unexpected. It's easier to take a relaxed attitude toward problems when we plan for the unexpected guest, delay, or event. 

8. Cope with stress by exercising rather than through substances, whether they be food, alcohol, or drugs. 

9. Hope for the best but expect the worst. That way when things go well, you'll have reason for even more celebration. 

10. Have expectations only for yourself, not for others. Even then, don't expect too much from yourself. The holidays are suppose to be a time of joy and relaxation, so let yourself be at rest. 

During the holidays, teaching means so much more than reading and writing. Yet, writing about the holidays and the memories that construct their lived reality can benefit our students and ourselves.

This year I want to capitalize on the opportunities I have to serve my students as they struggle with the pressures of the season, and we may even have some celebratory moments, too. 

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