Bright News

Kids get the holiday blues, too

Being honest and open about feelings can generate some good (or at least better) cheer

Homemade dinners that are a feast for the senses. Family get-togethers. Giving – and receiving – gifts. And maybe, if we’re lucky, a white Christmas.

They’re all part of the holidays.

But, for some, holiday cheer gives way to the holiday blues.

sad gingerbread man

It’s a real thing. Just as real as crammed parking lots, crowded stores, the financial stress of paying for gifts, worrying about finding those hard-to-find but top-of-the-wish-list presents, and wrestling with holiday lights.

One of every seven Americans – adults and children – experience the holiday blues (also sometimes referred to as the winter blues), according to the National Institutes of Health.

Two local experts share some ways to help children and young adults battling the holiday blues.

“Some of the teens I work with really dread the holidays,” says Mark Heine, Counselor at Nevada Union High School and Board member of Bright Futures for Youth. “The holidays can be a challenging time. The holidays are certainly part of the rhythm of the calendar and they can acutely remind us of who is missing.”

A death in the family. Divorce. A child in foster care who seldom (or never) sees her parents. Or, as many of us have experienced the past 18 months, get-togethers with family and friends put on hold because of the Covid pandemic.

The holidays can dramatically increase loneliness and sadness of missing someone special through divorce or death – and often serve as an all-too-real reminder of how much life has changed for an emotionally or financially struggling family.

“It can be a fun and delightful time of the year, but it’s also triggering,” says Cindy Morgan, Program Manager for Nevada County Children’s Behavioral Health. “There are often unique expectations.”

Discussing and managing those emotional triggers and expectations are critical for dealing with the holiday blues.

“You want them to set realistic expectations, and prepare for what’s most likely to happen,” Morgan says. “Then, set up a plan on how to cope in a healthy way.”

Coping can be as easy as breathing techniques or listening to music, she says. But, for some children and young adults, the holiday blues can become more serious.

Depression, irritability and sadness are very real emotions with the holiday blues. So are isolation and loneliness, sometimes caused by the holiday break when children are away from their peers.

However, these emotions can be hard to recognize. Heine recommends parents to watch how their children act during the holidays. Sometimes, actions – or the lack thereof – say more than words.

“Call on your parenting expertise,” he says. “Know your kids and their habits … and their limitations.”

For example, a change in eating or sleeping habits, irritability, sadness or even an overindulgence in “screen time” can serve as warning signs.

Now, how to address those hard-to-beat blues depends on the child and can be tough.

“Some kids need activities and opportunities so they don’t feel isolated,” Heine says. “For others, maybe it’s doing one (holiday) activity rather than three.”

Activities can range from going for a walk in the rain, visiting the Yuba River, seeing holiday lights or cooking at home.

But it can be a difficult balance when it comes to activities and family traditions, especially if a child is dealing with the loss of someone.

“Honor that loss, look at photos … use it as a time of gratitude,” Morgan says. “You’re validating the impact, and it gives you the opportunity to talk and reflect on your thoughts and emotions.”

But there are times when those memories may be too painful – or the loss too recent. Sometimes starting a new family tradition, perhaps a late-night walk on Christmas Eve in downtown Grass Valley or Nevada City, can help with the loss and moving forward.

Of course, children can also feel emotions – and holiday stress – from their parents. Heine and Morgan strongly encourage parents to be aware of their own struggles.

“Parents can get so overwhelmed with the holidays,” Morgan says. “Kids and parents tend to co-regulate. Set your priorities. And ask what each person is hoping for from the holidays, including yourself.”

And, remember, the best gift is the connection with your child and spending time together, especially during the sometimes-challenging holiday season.

“It’s important to have that safe relationship that will help buffer the stress, and strengthen their resilience,” Morgan says. “You’re someone who believes in them, and has their back.”

Coping tips on helping children deal with the holiday blues

· Discuss and set realistic expectations from the holiday season.

· Be aware that a loss, such as from a divorce or the death of a family member, can greatly affect children and young adults. Talk with them about their emotions.

· Stay active. But be aware that some children may cope better with fewer activities to deal with their emotions.

· Take a break from all of the holiday stress. Enjoy simple things, such as an evening walk, a hike or looking at holiday lights.

· Be GLAD at the end of the day, recalling what you are (G)rateful for from the day; (L)earned during the day; (A)ccomplished; and (D)elighted in.

Mark Heine
Cindy Morgan