How to Recognize and be Mindful of a Friend’s Hidden Holiday Challenges
by Maggie Jordan
The holiday season is often portrayed as the most wonderful time of the year, but unfortunately, that isn't the reality for many people. How do you know when a friend might need a helping hand?
Here are some ways to recognize a loved one may be struggling and make their holiday just a little bit brighter.
1. They’re grieving a recent loss
It’s a visceral experience to grieve a family member: there is an empty seat at the table, and someone’s role during holiday traditions goes unfilled.
You can help by asking each individual what they need in these difficult situations; some people may want distraction, and others may feel best with silent companionship. Simple gestures such as a handmade card or helping them pack up their dorm room may go a long way to remind them they’re not alone.
2. They’re coming out or questioning their gender or sexual identity
Coming out can be a long, difficult process, and individuals may tell people at different times; this might mean going home for a holiday when they are out to some people and not others. If you have a family member who is in the process of coming out, ask them which pronouns to use and how to refer to their significant other, so you don't accidentally out them to unknowing guests.
You might also check in with friends who have recently started exploring their sexual or gender identity. Being back in an environment where their identity is not acknowledged can be exhausting. A quick text message can help remind them of the outside world, and let them know you appreciate them for their true self.
3. They’re financially insecure
Unfortunately, many people don’t have the disposable income to cover extra expenses during the holiday season. Consider planning activities that are free or inexpensive, such as potluck meals or a snowy walk, instead of pricey dinners and outings.
Be mindful of gift giving as well; you might suggest setting up a present swap among your friends rather than buying a present for each individual. Set clear expectations ahead of time on a strict spending limit, or if gifts should only be handmade, so no one feels uncomfortable about their inability to reciprocate.
4. They’ve recently moved or can’t be with family
Celebrating the holidays in a new culture or city, away from family for the first time, can be a very lonely experience. Consider inviting anyone who can’t be with their family to join your holiday celebration, such as international students who are unable to make the trip back home, or recent grads spending their first holiday outside of their childhood home. To make outside guests feel welcome, you might think of inclusive topics ahead of time, avoid inside jokes, and perhaps invite more than one extra guest so they have someone to sit next to comfortably.
5. They’re recently sober
The holidays are a difficult time to maintain sobriety, especially if it’s a recent lifestyle change.
Substance use challenges are often difficult to notice within college drinking cultures or in a work setting, and the holiday season’s emphasis on food and drink may put extra pressure on sober individuals to join in the festivities. Try incorporating some wintery traditions that don’t involve alcohol, such as holiday card making or neighborhood walks with a hot mug of cider. And if you’re hosting a holiday party, consider setting up a hot chocolate station, and pour yourself a mug!
6. Their family structure has changed
Returning home for the first time since moving to a new city is always difficult, especially if your holiday group doesn’t look the same as it used to or as you might have hoped it would. Folks whose family members have recently separated or become institutionalized must navigate logistical stress alongside feelings of loss during a time they might have otherwise expected to spend together.
Acknowledging the stress of the situation can go a long way towards helping someone feel like their efforts are seen and appreciated. If you’re able, be there to listen or share personal coping strategies, such as alternating weeks or years spent with each family member and finding meaningful ways to include people who can’t be present, but are nonetheless an important part of the traditional celebration.
7. Their home is associated with difficult experiences
Unfortunately, sometimes a hometown is associated with childhood trauma, such as major loss and abuse, and individuals can be retraumatized upon return. It’s important to recognize that, there is no law that obligates you to spend the holidays with the family you were born into, especially if you’re financially independent; you can spend it with the family you choose.
If you’re able, invite a friend who had difficult childhood experiences to spend the holidays with your group. Even if they don’t accept the invitation, knowing that they have an alternative gives them back some control when they might be feeling powerless.
8. They’re experiencing a mental health challenge
Navigating a mental health challenge such as social anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or an eating disorder is difficult any time of the year, but holiday meals and gatherings may draw extra attention or put pressure on individuals to “perform.” Try to be aware of these tendencies; small gestures such as leading the way on introductions, encouraging everyone to wash their hands before dinner, and refraining from commenting on what anyone is eating may go a long way in helping someone feel less isolated.
Note: You don’t need to have a “diagnosable” mental health challenge to go to therapy; anyone can benefit from having a space of their own to navigate life’s ups and downs.
If the holidays are a particularly difficult time for you or a friend, you can find and connect with an outstanding local therapist at Zencare.
Maggie Jordan is Zencare's Therapist Success Manager. She is deeply committed to increasing access to care by streamlining the therapist search process, and particularly enjoys connecting LGBTQ+ folks with culturally competent therapists. She is a graduate of Brown University where she competed as a varsity swimmer.