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How to Help Your Kids Cope with Holiday Depression

Tune into the radio or flip through TV channels for long enough and you’ll likely hear the refrain, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” And who could argue? Between carolers and hot cocoa, buying presents and decking halls with boughs of holly, December often resembles a 31-day celebration of gratitude and togetherness. And while none of us are exactly immune to the magic of the season, there are plenty of kids who are down with a case of the holiday blues.

Whether it’s situational depression—sadness due to specific circumstances, like an illness, divorce or strained family dynamic—or a clinical mood disorder, it’s important for your child’s mental health to be valued this time of year. While depression is certainly a common culprit (especially in kids ages 12-14), attention-deficit disorder is also a major contributor to mental health issues in children under 11, says Susannah Denney. We sat down with Denney, a certified mental health first aid instructor and the veterans coordinator at Equest, to discuss how to ensure your family has a healthy and happy holiday season.

The holiday season can be stressful for all of us, but we often overlook how it can affect a child’s mental health. Unrealistic gift expectations, often intensified family interactions and disruption for school schedules can wreak havoc on a child’s mental wellbeing. What are some of the leading sources of holiday-related mental unhealthiness in kids?

Relationship issues with relatives and friends are the most common factor for children struggling with mental health between 5-14 years of age. Often, the holidays cause adults who are dealing with added financial and emotional pressures to experience elevated stress levels. At a young age, children [learn to] mirror their parents’ behaviors and emotions, which can weigh heavily on a child who may be already struggling. When a child struggles, the family struggles.

What are some common symptoms that parents should watch out for in their children?

An increase in impulsivity, becoming argumentative, withdrawal from activities and interests, isolation and moodiness are all indications that issues may be developing. [But] identifying common signs of a mental health issue in a child can be difficult due to the similarity of these traits and the traits in normal adolescent development. There is not one specific way a child may show signs of distress. The key is noticing changes in the normal behaviors.

If a parent is worried that their child is exhibiting symptoms of a mood disorder, what can they do? How can parents engage their kids in a constructive conversation about mental health?

Making time for a daily check-in will not only allow a parent to gain insight into how a young person is feeling, but will provide an outlet for the child to feel valued and heard. [Parents should] ask direct questions, and then allow a pause for a child to gather their thoughts. Providing a non-judgmental environment in which to share a difficult conversation is important. [When a child] knows they can trust that the adult is there for support – that can make a huge impact. What may feel insignificant to an adult may like the end of the world to a young person.

If it’s difficult to have a one-on-one conversation, look at your family’s dynamic and links to other people. You might realize that there is another person who has a significant relationship with your child—someone who they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with, like a relative or a school or church counselor. And they might be able to initiate an authentic interaction.

Most importantly, be clear that if a young person shares that they [want] to harm themselves or others it cannot be kept a secret. Children are dying by suicide as early as 5 years old. It’s better to have a young person angry that you intervened than to not seek help and tragedy strike.

Can you share some strategies for families to minimize stress, loneliness and depression during the holidays?

Setting limits on a child’s time using technology, especially social media, is important for one’s wellbeing. The constant barrage of information from the internet can be overwhelming for anyone. Instead, engage in seasonal recreational activities as a family. Set aside an evening to see the holiday lights in a nearby residential area. Work on a puzzle, read together, bake holiday treats to share with others. These activities help keep the lines of communication open while also creating holiday memories as a family. 

What are some of your favorite mood-lifting activities to do during the holidays?

One of my favorite holiday activities to do with children is making homemade ornaments. [We make] salt dough ornaments from flour, salt and warm water. They last for years and make for a great personalized gift. A visit to the Arboretum is an annual tradition of mine during the holidays. Watching holiday movies, baking treats and caroling are also inexpensive and memorable activities that bring joy to all.