The holiday season is often a time of joy and festivity, but it can also be a challenging period for children's mental health. Parents and caregivers can provide essential support by maintaining consistent routines, having open communication, and being vigilant about signs of mental health issues, says Valeria Arias, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Loma Linda University Health.
Below, Arias provides insight and strategies to assist parents in supporting their children during this time.
Holiday Blues vs. Depression
Holiday blues are temporary mood changes specific to the holiday season, while clinical depression is a more severe, year-round illness. Holiday blues in children can manifest as sleep issues, anger, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and sadness.
If your child has an extreme change that lasts beyond the holiday season, seek professional assistance for mental health immediately.
The Impact of Routine Disruption and Environment
A primary cause of holiday blues in children is disrupting their routine. Changes in sleep patterns, weather, and even guardianship, as parents may still work while children are on winter break, contribute to children's stress.
"The number one thing is maintaining a routine and sleep schedule,” Arias said. "Set a schedule that provides structure and stability. Many parents say, 'Well, they don't have school the next day, so I let them stay up until midnight. ' That causes many challenges the following day, as kids try to navigate the changes in routine, and now sleep deprivation, " said Arias.
Children also experience a change in their socialization patterns while on winter break and are no longer regularly interacting with their friends and classmates. Arias encourages parents to facilitate opportunities for their children to socialize, such as having playdates or activities with other children. This helps maintain a sense of connection and can reduce the feelings of loneliness that children might have during the holidays.
Parental Support and Communication
Parents are encouraged to engage in conversations about feelings, asking specific questions about their children's emotional state like "How are you feeling today?" or "What are some feelings you had today?" instead of "How are you doing?"
She explains this helps them label their emotions, reflect on what caused them to feel this way, and how to cope. Arias says parents should also share their own emotions with their kids so they can feel it's okay for them to feel these emotions because mom and dad are, too.
"When a child expresses that they are stressed, parents often try to fix it and say, 'Oh, don't worry, tomorrow will be a new day.’ Saying, 'I can see why you're feeling this way' validates our child’s emotional experiences and allows them to feel seen, heard, and accepted. This significantly impacts their emotional resiliency.”
Keeping everyone on the same page about plans
Holidays can also bring changes in family dynamics, such as gatherings and events, which might lead to feelings of emotional disconnect in children. Arias suggests holding family meetings to keep everyone connected and informed about plans, schedules, and expectations.
Communicating this information can help kids understand where you will be, giving them space to ask questions like, 'Who's going to take care of me? Where am I going to be?"
Daily Mental Health Practices
“When we go to the doctor, they typically tell us we have to exercise 20 minutes a day to stay physically strong. In the same way, we need to exercise our mental health 20 minutes a day.”
For daily mental well-being, Arias recommends children and adults participate in mindfulness practices such as deep breathing, journaling, stretching, relaxing, listening to music, talking to a friend, or laughing. Engaging in these activities for 20 minutes daily can significantly bolster an individual's emotional resilience and strengthen mental health.
For more information on our youth mental health services, click here.