The Holiday Blues: Helping Kids Manage Anxiety “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

For many, the holiday season is a time of celebration, community, and happiness. We see lots of joy, hear seasonal music, and are surrounded by “magical” images in the media, on television, and in movies.

For many, the holiday season is a time of celebration, community, and happiness. We see lots of joy, hear seasonal music, and are surrounded by “magical” images in the media, on television, and in movies.

What’s challenging is that not everyone experiences the holiday season the way that they are portrayed. Faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, do not celebrate this religious holiday so the prioritization of these dominant celebrations in our culture can feel lonely. For others, our experiences don’t match the expectations of what the holidays “should” be like.

It’s important to hold space and consider some of the other narratives and realities about what the holiday season brings for many. 

What are the “holiday blues”?

The holiday blues is a term used to describe changes in mood and behavior that come about during what we consider the holiday season, typically between November to January when commonly celebrated holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s occur.  

These holidays bring a lot of happiness to most but it is a period of time when others are reminded of painful losses, thinking about the people who are no longer with them. We’re reminded of financial constraints, needing to work and be productive while others may be on vacation and celebrating. Or, feeling like we don’t belong when we aren’t invited to certain celebrations or that involve others getting together. 

Many factors can contribute to experiencing the blues during this time. There are a lot of changes in our daily routines, we are often out of school or taking time off of work. This may mean that we go from a rigid daily routine to days that kind of start blending in together and have little structure to help guide us and keep us on track.  

It’s also cold, rainy or snowy, which means we may spend more time indoors, are receiving less sunlight, and may start to feel more sluggish. We are also generally spending more time at home or traveling to see family and friends more than usual. While it is great to reconnect, some people feel less safe (maybe school is where they feel safe) or experience more conflict or disagreements. This looks different in each of our families.

It’s important to know that the holiday blues are temporary mental health symptoms, such as sadness, anger, stress, anxiety, which only last during the holiday season. The holiday blues are different from mental illness, but these short-term mental health problems should be taken seriously. And, the holidays can worsen symptoms in people with existing mental illness. Even people who love the holidays and this time of year can also experience the holiday blues.

For kids, the holidays may feel more isolated or lonely because they are not seeing their friends in school every day and they may see social media posts of people sharing their “perfect” holidays.  

Supporting a child with the holiday blues

If you notice that your child seems tense, worried, lonely, anxious, or is experiencing changes in their sleep patterns, a lack of motivation, changes in their appetite or weight, or other unusual behaviors, it’s important to show compassion and be supportive.

Express your concerns open and honestly. This can be a very vulnerable conversation to have—for both of you. We don’t know how kids are going to respond to our questions or what they may tell us they’re struggling with, so having these kinds of conversations can be a little overwhelming or intimidating. However, even just by asking, you’ll send an important message that you care and want to understand what they’re going through.

Know that it is okay if you don’t have all of the answers. You don’t have to do a lot of the talking. You can validate the child’s emotional experiences and thoughts, reflect back to them what you heard them say and what you understood, let them know that you believe their feelings and that you understand that their problems are a big deal to them, and you want to support them. 

Here are ways you can best support your child during this time:

  1. Have a supportive mindset: Always start by bringing your compassion and expressing your love when you see your child struggling mentally. Make sure that they know that you hear their pain, that it can get better, that you will make sure they get the help they need, and will support them every step of the way. This in and of itself is incredibly supportive.

  2. Plan ahead and prioritize routines: Try to stick to normal household routines and observe regular mealtimes and bedtimes whenever possible. Let kids mentally prepare ahead of time by giving them advance notice of family plans. Give them some control over their schedule to spend time and celebrate with their friends.

  3. Manage expectations: Help to set realistic expectations and explain that the holidays don’t have to be perfect or “just like last year”. Traditions and rituals can change and grow just like families change and grow. Also, make sure to discuss a realistic gift list for your teen. Set a budget for their gifts for friends and family and encourage them to make some of their presents.

  4. Set boundaries: Give your kids permission to set boundaries around who they spend their time with and let them know that they can say “no” to people around specific invitations or anything else that might be a trigger for them. 

  5. Social media limitations: Too much time on social media or with video games can cause sensory overload and encourages temper flare ups. Social media can set kids up for unrealistic comparisons with others’ holiday experiences. Set some boundaries—whatever is best for you and your family.

  6. Encourage self-care: It is important to prioritize taking care of ourselves, as parents and individuals, and teach our kids how to do this as well. Setting aside time to recharge can be extra important in times when we have disruptions in our routines and added pressures that the holidays bring. Express gratitude. Take time to rest. Exercise. Give back to your community by volunteering or donating items.

Even if you and your family don’t experience any of these challenges during this time of year, make sure that you—and your kids—understand that the holiday season is harder for some than others. It’s important to be aware and empathetic of other people’s experiences. 

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