You may be wondering, “why should I talk to my kids about mental health around the holidays? That seems so sad!”
In the previous version of this article, I included many outdated statistics about depression and other mental health conditions in children and those around them. However, as of the date of this writing (12/8/2021) the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a public warning regarding the state of youth mental health.
In what he calls a “crisis” that was already brewing, but exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Murthy breaks down statistics like 25% of youth experience depressive symptoms, hospital visits for suicide attempts have risen among youth 51% since 2019, and that suicide, which used to be the second-highest cause of death for youth and young adults has increased by 57% in youths aged 10-24.
These are scary numbers.
NAMI says that 64% of people reported that the holidays make their mental health condition symptoms worse. Contrary to popular belief, suicide rates actually fall during the holidays. But when all the shiny and happy of the holidays wears off, what happens to those who struggle with mental illness?
When kids have to go back to school, adults have to go back to work, when you’re no longer surrounded by family and friends and lots of happy carbohydrates...when dealing with mental illness is no longer chocolate-covered by the holiday season, where does that leave us?
It’s also estimated that 1 in 5 children aged 3-17 has a mental, developmental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. The average public school class is 16 kids. That means that in your child’s class, right now, there are at least 3 kids suffering from something. We’re talking babies, here. My nephew is four, and he’s included in that statistic.
But kids are kids, right? They're not scientists or doctors, and unfortunately sometimes lack the emotional maturity or ability to articulate how they're feeling. The signs are easy to miss. And many kids don't understand what depression or other mental illness really looks like.
These are tiny humans navigating big life situations, and peers + the media often don't provide accurate information about mental health concerns.
I'll never forget the day I visited my niece (who was 9 0r 10 at the time) during a particularly dramatic mermaid-themed playdate. She busts out of her room, looks me square in the eye, and says, "Tia, you look depressed."
Then she and her slightly-less precocious friend both say, "I'm depressed, too."
My first thought was 'where did they hear that?!' My second thought was, 'do they even know what that means? and is it accurate?'
It can be difficult to discuss mental health with adults, let alone children. The stigma is real and misinformation is plenty.
Fortunately, Tinsletown has unwittingly provided parents and caregivers with a treasure trove of material to draw from.
What if I told you we can use movies to teach our kids about important things?
Here's where we get Grinchy.
Just about everyone knows the story of the incorrigible, perpetually grouchy Grinch who tried to "steal" Christmas.
For him, being mean seems to be a sport. A way of life. A creed.
Of course, The Grinch's behavior is played off for laughs in adaptations of the character's story. But there's more to his crumugeonous (yes, that's a word I just made up) exterior than meets the eye.
We find out later on that it's not entirely poor old Grinchy's fault he's so hateful. He was abandoned, neglected, ridiculed for being different -- all of which had a profound impact upon his personality. His pain made him intolerable, callous, vengeful.
In a triumphant conclusion, all is made well when his heart 'grows three sizes' at the realization that Christmas is about love, not stuff.
But what if there's more to this holiday classic than just a scrooge turned family-man?
The Grinch, particularly the 2018 film version created by Illumination, gives us a new look at Whoville which offers a wealth of material to use as an illustration of different mental health conditions.
You can watch the animated Grinch (2018) and the live-action Ron Howard/Jim Carrey version How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) side by side with the kids in your life, then use this article as a guide to spark and navigate conversation afterward.
It’s important that we have hard conversations with youth now. The holidays are a great time to approach these subjects and educate kids about mental health conditions. Pretty much everyone is at home, you’re (hopefully) spending time together as a family, usually, you’re (hopefully) relaxed, the kids are out of school...it’s a golden opportunity to slow down and talk about what matters. I strongly encourage you to take a beat, watch a couple of Grinchy films with the kids in your life, and tackle the hard stuff.
A word of caution, though: it is imperative that you enter this kind of conversation with an attitude of acceptance, empathy, and use a calm, kind, nonjudgmental tone throughout. Let the kiddos know that they're allowed to be completely honest without any fear of punishment.
Your demeanor will either foster a safe environment for kids to talk and learn, or it will cause them to shut down and retreat -- which is the total opposite of what we’re aiming for here. Use this as an opportunity to make a fun, loving, warm experience for your kids; break out the Christmas popcorn, the hot cocoa (or whatever your holiday traditions are), and get ready to dive in.
Feel free to interweave examples from real life into your conversations, but make sure not to 'burden' young people by turning them into a confidant; you are still the grown-up, here. Empathize, share, and acknowledge what the kiddos are saying.
Part 1: PTSD & STRESS DISORDERS
To put it simply for kids, Acute Distress Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are conditions caused by actual or threatened exposure to something threatening. This could be getting bit by a dog, it could be sexual abuse, being beaten up by a bully (or verbally threatened by one), a car crash, or a school shooter drill.
When we feel like something harmful might happen to us, the systems in our bodies that control our basic functions go into overdrive. People who have stress disorders have experienced a painful (emotional and/or physical) and scary event that just won’t let go. Their bodies and minds are affected by it, and a panic response can be “triggered” at any time by even seemingly harmless things.
Losing a loved one can be traumatic. If you were alive during 9/11, you have experienced what is called “collective trauma”. Trauma affects our lives and daily functioning in so many ways, and it’s important for kids to understand that whether they or someone else is experiencing a stress disorder, it’s not their fault, and it requires empathy.
The DSM-5 (the American Psychological Association’s diagnostic manual) lists symptoms for PTSD as this:
- Repeated, uncontrolled, distressing memories
- Repeated and upsetting trauma-like dreams
- Dissociative experiences like flashbacks
- Significantly upset by trauma-linked cues (aka “triggers”)
- Pronounced physical reactions when exposed to triggers
Tell-tell signs of a stress disorder also include: avoiding things that remind you of the event, memory loss, negative changes in mood (related to the event or its triggers), sleep disturbances, overactive alertness (like a dog attack victim jumping at the sound of distant barking), and significant distress.
Stress disorders can be short-term or long-term. If the symptoms last less than a month, it’s called Acute Stress Disorder; longer than a month, and it may be PTSD.
Here’s how you can use the Grinch to illustrate PTSD for the children in your life.
In both the 2000 and 2018 versions of the film, we see The Grinch displaying a negative reaction to the events at the Whobilation. The lights, the noise, the crowds -- all of it kinda freaks him out, which, in the 2000 version, causes an outburst. Why? These “Christmassy” things triggered a traumatic response in The Grinch; it reminded him of being bullied, ridiculed, and hurt during Christmases’ past.
In the 2018 version, we actually see The Grinch have a type of dissociative episode, called a “flashback”. When he sees the Whos decorating for Christmas, he’s immediately brought back to the painful memory of waking up in the orphanage as a child and being completely alone for Christmas.
Questions to ask the kiddos:
Points to make for kids:
- PTSD is a real medical condition with physical and emotional symptoms caused by being exposed to something that scares or hurts us.
- “Triggers” are things that remind us of the painful or scary event(s).
- We can’t control how our bodies will react to a trigger; sometimes we may cry, 'freak out', or run away. That doesn't mean we're weak or weird.
- When someone is behaving strangely, it’s not kind to make fun of them or judge them. They might be experiencing a reaction to something painful that we can't see or don’t understand.
- If someone you love has a stress disorder like PTSD, they may have difficulty with certain things or places, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to spend time with you, or that you did anything wrong.
- When you experience something that frightens or hurts you, it’s okay to talk about it and ask for help when it bothers you, even if it bothers you for a long time. It doesn’t make you wimpy or strange!
Check out these resources for more on youth mental health:
- The child's pediatrician and/or a qualified mental health professional is always a great place to start. School psychiatrists may also be extremely helpful.
Abnormal Psychology, 11th Edition, Comer & Comer