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The weeks leading up to New Year’s can be magical for a child, with all the holiday celebrations and family memories. But it’s a time that can also bring feelings of disappointment, sadness and loss — the holiday blues — just like for some adults each year.
Unfortunately, parents may not realize how to help kids of all ages, even preschoolers, deal with holiday stress. But by managing expectations, monitoring emotions and making sure to notice signs of exhaustion and anxiety, experts say, parents can be key in helping children cope.
Triggers for the “holiday blues” in kids aren’t that different from those that make many adults feel down this time of year, including grief, fatigue and ramped-up expectations. The general happiness of the season — music, decorations, lights, caroling — can intensify a sad or stressful event that a child has experienced during the past year, such as the death of a family member or the loss of a parent’s job. A recent Johns Hopkins study stated that nearly half of American children are exposed to at least one social or family experience that can lead to traumatic stress, whether it's divorced parents or extreme economic hardship.
Don’t just try to cheer a kid up
Dr. Drew Ramsey, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, who specializes in anxiety and depression, distinguishes the holiday blues from depressive disorders, which according to the National Institute of Mental Health, affect about 11 percent of children by age 18. But he cautions parents that “holiday blues” can be contagious. “If you are feeling down or depressed and don’t do a great job of managing [your adult] emotions, a child is certainly more likely to feel that way too,” said Dr. Ramsey. He advises parents to take an active role and acknowledge a child’s “holiday blues” instead of trying to cheer a kid up or talk him or her out of feeling sad.
“It’s OK to tell kids, ‘I’m really down because Grandma died this year, too. It’s a harder holiday for all of us,’” he explained. “Parents can say it’s not always going to be a great season for everyone every year.”
Feeling different from peers can also be particularly sensitive for children and teens during the holidays, when there is so much focus on family traditions, especially now that the festivities are documented on Facebook and Instagram.
Saira Rao, co-founder of a Denver, Colorado-based children’s publishing company, In This Together Media, recalls growing up in Richmond, Virginia, in an Indian-American home. “My family did Christmas up, but things were off,” said Rao, now a mom of kids ages 6 and 4.
Rao remembers being in church on Christmas Day, for example, and feeling like “the super foreign family in bright clothes” with the “mom who wore a sari,” and how her mother served chicken curry instead of turkey like her friends’ families did. “I always dreaded that post-gift call [from my best friend],” said Rao, despite the generous presents she also received. “I felt like this friend trumped me on all fronts: family, church, Christmas loot.”
Adults should confront issues ranging from financial adversity and holiday budgets to family customs head-on, especially with adolescents, who may be dreading the post-Christmas calls from friends comparing gifts or the social media onslaught of ski and beach vacations. “Be open and reassuring,” Ramsey advised. “Tell them yes, it’s been financially difficult this year, and maybe it’s not going to be a great holiday season in terms of material gifts. Or our family doesn’t do this or that for Christmas. But if you discuss it, they will feel less stress leading up to the holiday.”
Help children in divorced families balance parent time
The holidays focus heavily on family, and children are often bombarded with “picture perfect scenes” in Christmas ads and movies. So the season can be a painful reminder for children in divorced families of what they don’t have and cause them to feel some increased sadness, according to Christina McGhee, divorce coach and author of “Parenting Apart: How Separated and Divorced Parents Can Raise Happy and Secure Kids.”
“There’s a lot of hustle and bustle, financial pressures for a lot of families, traveling, all the things that come up normally,” said McGhee. “Now throw divorce into the mix, and it puts a new spin on things.”
Her advice to parents: Never place a child in the middle of the holiday decision-making and ask them how much time they want to spend at either parent’s house. “Putting your kid in the driver’s seat during the holidays draws them into adult issues and raises their stress level,” she explained.
Most of all, McGhee encourages parents to include one other: “Send a text picture to the other parent from a school holiday party or Skype them while you are decorating the tree,” she suggested, “so children don’t feel sad about leaving one parent out.”
Focus on sleep and structure
Experts agree that children, like adults, suffer more irritability and holiday blues the more exhausted they become. The biggest mistake that parents of young children make during Christmas is overscheduling everybody, said Alanna McGinn, certified sleep consultant and founder of Good Night Sleep Site.
McGinn recommends an 80/20 rule to her clients: For 80 percent of the time before the holidays, try to protect a child’s bedtime and nap routine. The other 20 percent can be more unstructured and a child can give up a normal sleep schedule. For adolescents, however, she says, the opposite is true: plan holiday activities later in the afternoon or evenings, not in the morning, so that teenagers have time to sleep later, as their circadian rhythms shift and they have difficulty falling asleep earlier at night.
The American Academy of Pediatrics lists holiday mental health tips, including:
1. Stick to a child’s normal sleep and mealtime schedule when you can.
2. Don’t feel pressured to overspend on gifts.
3. Teach kids the skills they need for the holidays, so if you plan to have a formal, sit-down dinner, for example, they aren’t stressed about behavior expectations.
Know signs of a more serious problem
“Kids can certainly feel sadder when it’s colder and darker out and there’s less physical activity,” said NBC contributor and child psychologist, Michele Borba, “And while the holidays are supposed to be this joyous, happy affair, kids can feel down or stressed out or irritable just like adults.”
But how do you know when a child is experiencing something more serious than holiday blues and needs medical help? Borba suggests parents gauge the “too index.”
Does the moodiness or sadness or exhaustion last too long? Is it spilling over to your kid’s school or social life? Every kid is going to have a down day, but are you hearing about your kid's “blues” from other people? Is your child’s teacher or friend’s parent noticing a change?
In most cases, the first step is to try to get your child to verbalize why he or she is sad. “If you can figure out the cause, why they are feeling the holiday blues this year,” she explained, “you can usually help brainstorm a solution.”