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General Mills

Leah Ableson is a 24-year-old wedding planner living in New York City, and she’s made it her mission to create traditions that bring others joy.

On paper, Leah could be quintessential material for the opening of a Christmas movie: a millennial who’s overtaxed by work and too busy to think of anyone other than herself before having an unexpected run-in with Santa that reminds her of the true meaning of Christmas. But Leah’s already begun a tradition of helping others around the holidays with no Santa run-in required.

Busy as she is, Leah sets aside her birthday every year — just a few weeks before the holidays — to go shopping for as many toys as she can afford, and then she drops them off at Toys for Tots. She’s also part of a bigger annual tradition: She’s a member of a specially trained team that helps Macy's host Santa and his elves during their month-long residency at SantaLand on 34th Street.


All images via iStock.

Leah created her holiday traditions to be about one thing: keeping the magic alive for others.

She sees much of that magic firsthand as children — and adults! — interact with Santa. "There have been kids who have asked for peace in the world, or peace in their families, or for their parents to get everything that they've ever wanted," she writes in a message. "You really see so much good.”

That human goodness — and Santa’s ability to coax it out of people and into the open — is what constitutes holiday magic in Leah’s book. The idea that she, too, could spread some magic of her own is what inspired her to start her own toy-drive tradition.

"Seeing the kids at SantaLand every year really drove home to me how special Christmas and the magic surrounding it are for a lot of them," she says. "To a lot of kids, toys aren't these material objects, they are treasures that inspire their imagination and creativity. Going out and picking out toys for kids felt like a way that I could sort of encourage that magic."

There's a common misconception that millennials are universally uninterested in traditions. But Leah is definitely not alone in using rituals new and old to celebrate the season.

Across her generation, people are doing the same thing: picking and choosing which traditions are important based not on an older generation's input, but on what rituals bring them and their communities the most joy.

For 23-year-old Mae McKenna, midnight Mass is the event that completes her Christmas. She goes with her seven-person family, and as she begins to think about starting a family of her own, she says that church will be a tradition that she keeps with her.

"There’s a lot of really sweet magical stories that come out of the religious end of the holiday that keep people humble," she shares. "It’ll be important to me to pass that onto my kids so they care more about spending time with family and celebrating than focusing on the gifts they get."

For a family of swing dancers, it's raucous cooking-and-dancing Christmas prep that defines the season. "We listen to the same six CDs in the same six-disk CD changer," explains 22-year-old Carolyn Chadwick. "It's not so much about the gift-getting or giving. My family doesn't get along very well, but something happens to us when we dance. I can't quite describe it, but it's important that we keep doing it."

Some traditions are downright ridiculous but no less treasured. "I created a tradition of always getting my brother and sister wooden shapes from Michael's for Christmas. It's the worst gift ever, and it's always funny," says 24-year-old Ryan Creamer, who says he started giving at least one truly terrible present every year to lighten the pressure associated with trying to give the perfect gift.

That Leah, Mae, Ryan, Carolyn, and others put so much thought into their holiday traditions contradicts the notion that their generation is too "self-centered" to care about such things.

"I think millennials have a way of saying when we think something is pointless, or being done for the wrong reason," Leah wrote. "And so I think a lot of the traditions that older generations may have held onto are being questioned, but I don't think it's because we don't respect tradition. I'd like to think our age group upholds fewer traditions, but the ones that we uphold have great value."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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