Supporting Mentees During the Holidays: A Guide for Mentors and Mentoring Program Staff

Posted by eporter on December 20, 2023

Supporting Mentees During the Holidays: A Guide for Mentors and Mentoring Program Staff

The holiday season can be an exciting and joyful time to gather with loved ones and plan celebrations, but it can also be a stressful time for both children and adults. During this time of year, families may face stress caused by changes in normal routines and schedules, financial burdens, pressure to socialize, or grief that is exacerbated during the holidays. Short-term stress, such as that often experienced during the holidays, can be beneficial to youth when they are in a supportive environment with a trusted adult. Experiencing stress in this way may promote resilience and help youth create mechanisms for dealing with stressful situations in the future. However, when stress is severe and/or long lasting, it may increase a child’s risk of cognitive impairment and lead to disease development into adulthood. Fortunately, research shows that support from a caring adult may prevent or reverse these harmful effects of stress on the health and wellbeing of young people.

Mentors can play an impactful role in the lives of their mentees by supporting them through stressful situations, thereby helping protect their mentees from the negative impacts of stress. During the holiday season, mentors may need to be additionally attentive to their mentees’ needs in order to support them through stress that may be brought on or amplified during the holidays. We have provided a few suggestions for mentors and mentoring program staff to help you become more aware and supportive of mentees’ needs during the holidays.

How to Identify When a Mentee is Struggling

Stressors during the holidays can often result in behavioral problems for youth. Sometimes, the signs that a mentee is suffering from stress are easy to spot. When stressed, youth may be aggressive, defiant, or  misuse substances. Other times, the signs of stress are less obvious. For example, mentees may experience worries, sadness, thoughts of hurting themselves, or eating disorders during the holidays. Though these internalizing behaviors may be difficult to identify, there are some indicators to be aware of that may signal that a mentee is distressed.

When a mentee is suffering with anxiety, they may experience persistent or extreme forms of fear and sadness, irritability, trouble sleeping, or fatigue. Signs that may alert you to your mentees’ anxiety may include seeming scared or upset when faced with specific situations or things, when away from their parents, or when around others; making statements that begin with “but what if…;” complaining of headaches or stomachaches; or having panic attacks, which are defined as episodes of unexpected, intense fear with symptoms like heart pounding or trouble breathing (click here to learn how to identify when a child is having a panic attack and how to help).

When a mentee is suffering with depression, they may experience persistent or extreme forms of fear or sadness, loneliness or feelings of not belonging, low self-esteem, not experiencing joy, changes in eating patterns or energy, self-injury or self-destructive behavior, or irritability. Signs that may alert you to your mentee’s depression may include not wanting to participate in or enjoy fun activities, having difficulty paying attention, using absolutist language such as “always” or “never,” or making statements such as “no one cares” or “I can’t.” During this time of year, it is additionally important to consider how mentees’ moods may be impacted by the seasons. Individuals who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may show symptoms of depression, low energy, trouble sleeping or oversleeping, changes in appetite, or loss of interest in fun activities beginning in the fall and continuing in to the winter months.

How Mentors Can Support Mentees During the Holidays

If you are a mentor and suspect that your mentee is feeling anxious, depressed, or suicidal, immediately speak with support staff at your mentoring program about your concerns. Mentoring program staff may be able to provide you with resources or connections to support your mentee and their mental health.

If the holidays are stressful for your mentee, consider doing activities with your mentee that are not related to the holidays or shopping. Most importantly, have an open conversation with your mentee about what types of activities they are interested in doing, so your mentee’s interests and preferences are prioritized during activity planning. If your mentee asks for suggestions of activities to do, particularly ways to help others, then you might suggest doing a community service activity together, such as cooking a meal at a local meal center, sending a greeting card to an elderly neighbor who lives alone, delivering a meal through Meals on Wheels, or knitting a scarf for a refugee or immigrant family. These types of activities may improve mentees’ feelings of connectedness to their community and have positive impacts on their mental health.

Though the holidays may be a busy time, it is important to stay in contact with your mentee throughout this time. Staying emotionally connected to your mentee during stressful times is a crucial part of helping them feel supported and building a stronger mentoring relationship. If you or your mentee travel over the holidays, consider communicating through texting, phone calls, or video chats. Your communications and meetings don’t always have to be in person.

If relevant, express to your mentee that you are open to talking with them about their feelings if they do not feel positively about the holidays. You might normalize the experience of having ambivalent feelings or worries or even negative feelings about the holidays, so that they don’t feel alone or alienated.  In fact, many people find the holidays stressful and you can share this perspective with your mentee to help universalize their thoughts and feelings.

How Mentoring Programs Can Support Mentors During the Holidays

Mentors can better support their mentees when they feel adequately prepared and supported by their mentoring program. Program staff may consider hosting a webinar or sharing an email with mentors that includes tips for how to support their mentees over the holidays. Providing guidance about gift-giving may be additionally helpful for mentors who are unsure about the expectations and boundaries related to match gift giving in your program. Some mentoring programs solicit donations from mentors and community members, so that they can provide small practical or educational holiday gifts to mentees. These donations may be a way you to be sure your mentee receives a holiday gift.

Your program should also provide mentors with avenues to connect with program staff over the holidays in case there is an emergency that occurs. That way mentors can ask questions or seek resources to better support their mentees during the holidays. When meeting with mentors, your program’s support staff should emphasize the importance of mental health awareness during this time of year and encourage mentors to check in with their mentees more frequently to be assessing their feelings and providing them with ongoing support.

How Mentoring Programs Can Support Mentees During the Holidays

Mentoring program staff may support mentees more directly during the holidays by sending them a holiday card and checking in regularly with mentees and their parents or caregivers to assess how the mentee is feeling. When relevant, staff should remind mentees and their families of the available resources in their community to support children and families. Mentoring programs may find it helpful to regularly research and stay aware of local mental health resources, food pantries, Angel Tree opportunities, and organizations that provide support for rent or utilities to prevent homelessness. In addition, mentoring programs can research and share hotline numbers to help anyone who is feeling suicidal.

Youth often spend less time at school during the holidays due to school closures, and this change in routine can cause stress for some mentees. Mentoring programs have the opportunity to provide structure to mentees while school is out by encouraging matches to meet regularly over the holidays and continuing scheduled events. Program staff may also consider providing opportunities for matches to participate in group activities, such as by hosting a holiday party or ice-skating event, so mentees can interact with peers and supportive adults while away from school.

Whether you are a mentor or mentoring program staff member, you can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health challenges by talking openly about the importance of mental health. Prioritizing communication between matches and program staff, during the holiday season and always, is key for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved in the mentoring relationship.