A marathon of holidays, beginning with Halloween and ending with New Year's, means a flurry of festivities, leisure time, late nights, and loads of sweets. But what goes up must come down, and after having lots of fun and leisure time with family, kids may feel sad returning to their pre-holiday life. The decrease in celebrations and excitement can affect kids' moods, causing disappointment and even more serious melancholy feelings. Here are seven ways to help kids cope with symptoms of the post-holiday blues or avoid them altogether.
Know the Signs
Kids tend to show their feelings through their actions, rather than explain them with words. Look for commons signs of the blues such as lack of appetite, trouble sleeping, moodiness, an inability to control impulses, skipping activities that normally interest them, apathy, and tantrums. Kids may go through phases where they feel really sad but then bounce back. "If it lasts much longer than three weeks to a month, you want to keep an eye on it and talk to your pediatrician," says Jennifer Kolari, child and family therapist and author of Connected Parenting. By knowing what to look for, parents can be better prepared to address concerns and support kids having any difficulties.
Listen to Your Kids
The more we can validate our kids' feelings and experiences, the more likely they will feel supported. "As parents, we have a hard time with our children's sadness," Kolari explains. "We tend to try to talk our kids out of their feelings and that just makes them more blue, so in our attempt to fix it we sometimes make it worse." Instead, listen to your kids and empathize. "You want to mirror them a bit and say, 'You know, it's hard. It's hard to go from being free and seeing Mommy and Daddy every day and to getting up early and having school and homework.'" Show that you understand your kids' disappointment but that you have confidence that they'll get through it. By doing this, you demonstrate that you trust them, which ultimately teaches them to trust themselves.
Keep the Connection
Creating fun activities to do together after the holidays will keep the family close and connected. Spend time together making an art project or a scrapbook of photographs that showcases your memories and experiences. Even simple playing and having hands-on fun with your kids can strengthen the bonds. Kolari describes surprising her daughter with a meal underneath the dining room table one day. "She couldn't believe how much fun that was."
Spending time together in nature can also be a mood lifter. "We tend to stay inside a lot over the winter, which can contribute to the blues," says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a happiness expert at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center and the author of Raising Happiness. "Even looking out a window or just being in daylight can improve your mood." Bundle up and go for a walk together or engage in winter sports. A new year brings a host of new opportunities, so make room for family activities and continue the spirit of togetherness.
Stay with a Structure
Between school vacations, parties, and travel, it's easy to let the daily structure slide, but kids thrive on routine, so try to maintain some normalcy when it comes to meals, playtime, and sleep. "Sleep is the main routine that families let go and a lot of behavioral problems are related to sleep deprivation. It's tempting to think 'Oh, it's a holiday, let's all relax and free-flow,' but there are some kids that just cannot free-flow. It only makes them antsy and anxious and miserable," Kolari warns. With all that's going on during the holidays, "kids rack up a considerable amount of sleep debt. We know that as little as a decrease in 20 minutes of sleep per night, for three to five days, is enough to affect kids' cognition or their ability to learn," Dr. Carter says.
Maintain structure by creating a schedule for the day and lay out what's happening next. You can write it out and keep it on the fridge. "Kids, particularly those who are high- energy, love to have a schedule. They like to know what's happening next," Kolari says. While the daily routine will be somewhat different over a holiday break, "the schedule needs to be predicable for kids. Know that the structure is what kids need to feel good," Dr. Carter advises. Keeping some familiarity throughout the day can help kids feel more balanced.
Create New Traditions
Sprinkle in some new traditions that won't end just because the holidays do. "We have friends who have a tree un-decorating party," Dr. Carter says. "The tree is by their front door and everyone takes an ornament off, wraps it, and puts it in the box." Reclaiming the space that has been rearranged and cluttered can feel rejuvenating. Also, continue any gratitude practices you might have started over Thanksgiving. "People who consciously practice gratitude tend to be considerably happier than people who don't. It's something you can teach your kids to do year-round," Dr. Carter says. Make a point after the holidays to reflect on what you each enjoyed most. Dr. Carter's family has a tradition of telling jokes at Christmas dinner. "So when we ask, 'What did you love about Christmas? What are your favorite traditions? What do you want to do next year?' nobody mentions their favorite toy. They always mention which joke they loved." By incorporating a post-holiday tradition of thankfulness, kids will experience long-term emotions of joy and happiness, and feel the spirit of the holidays for months to come.
After months of consuming endless cookies, cakes, and sweets, get your kids involved in creating and eating healthy dishes. Load up the fridge with fresh fruits and veggies, look for snacks that are low in sugar and high in whole grains, vitamins, and minerals, and be sure to encourage your kids to stay hydrated by drinking lots of water—all of this can improve and boost moods. Flip through a cookbook and make nutritious recipes together. And encourage movement: "Exercise helps to release endorphins, which are the best instant mood lifter that we have. It also helps kids sleep better," Dr. Carter explains. Kids can often feel restless and edgy when their system is out of balance. "If you build play into your day, like wrestling, hide-and-seek, something physical that has a positive kind of adrenaline, you can often ward off some pretty bad tantrums," Kolari says. Getting back to healthy eating habits and physical activities can increase good feelings and decrease frustrated behaviors.
Acts of kindness and generosity are mood lifters no matter the season, so involve the family in charity service projects. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate gently used clothes and items. Instead of receiving personal gifts, the kids in Dr. Carter's family are given charity gift cards. "Each one gets ten dollars to give away to one of 200 charities of his or her choice," she explains. "The kids spend time researching which charities they want to give to, and they don't do it until after the new year, so the feeling lasts after the dust settles." Service projects don't have to be complicated. There are plenty of simple ways to teach kids about the spirit of giving, from sending cards to children in the hospital to deciding which old toys should be re-gifted. Visit bigheartedfamilies.org to find accessible volunteer projects. When the focus is on giving to others, it's difficult to stay in a slump.
Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.
Corinne Schuman is a mother and licensed mental health counselor in Washington, DC.