|What happens when your kid isn’t as happy as she usually is at Christmas? Divorce, the economy, and other factors may make kids feel sad during the holiday season. But there is help.|
Lexie Alexander has her mother worried. “She’s lost interest in Christmas,” says her mom, Patty, “And, each new day seems to make her more lethargic about the whole thing.”
“At first, Lexie was anxious about how Santa would know which house she’d be at Christmas morning. Then, when her grandmother asked what she wanted for Christmas she told her ‘nothing,’” explains the Baltimore mother.
“Her question was perfectly legitimate considering that her dad and I can’t seem to work that out ourselves, but it’s not what you’d expect from a six-year-old.”
Lexie’s anxiousness is a sure sign that the little girl has the holiday blues. Since children usually anticipate the holidays with barely-contained excitement, many are shocked when they learn that kids can get seasonally sad just like adults.
Says Dr. Pat Webbink, Director of Bethesda’s Adult, Adolescent, and Child Counseling Associates, children most definitely get the holiday blues. In fact, she stresses, they can be just as difficult on kids as they are on grown-ups.
Many of their symptoms even mimic those seen in adults: a change in sleeping patterns, eating too much or too little, or avoiding contact and interaction with others.
But, explains Dr. Karen Rickard, staff associate in the Child Treatment Center of the Washington School of Psychiatry, children express their blues in different ways too. “Kids can get cranky, demanding, short-tempered, or oppositional. Or, they may burst into tears at the drop of a hat. Others may become more quiet and withdrawn, or lose interest in activities they normally enjoy.”
One primary reason kids get the blues is that the holidays are often blatant reminders of what’s been lost. Says Webbink, “The holidays are a very important time, a very intense time, and, if a child has lost someone to divorce or death he or she can feel especially sad, lethargic, or hopeless.”
Children have a natural yearning to be with both parents during special, celebratory times and this makes the void left by a dissolved family that much more apparent. Says Rickard, “One of the most stressful things for kids is the experience, either of being separated from one parent or the other during special holiday times or, alternatively, of having to split their time and attentions between parents during the busy hustle and bustle of the season.”
For those children who have experienced a loss of some sort, both Webbink and Rickard recommend encouraging them to talk about it at their own pace.
Experts also suggest trying to shift the focus from lost traditions and onto the opportunity to create exciting new ones. In other words, shift the emphasis from the past onto the future. Rickard stresses that when new family units develop their own holiday traditions they should involve the children in doing so. “By actively involving the kids, [children] will feel they have a stake in the process and will be more likely to invest in it.”
Divorce, as in Lexie’s case, is the most common reason kids find themselves down during the holiday season but the painful effects of such losses aren’t the only reason kids get the blues.
Another major trigger for a child’s difficulties can be the break in routine. Children thrive on consistent and predictable routine and during the holidays, says Rickard, kids’ schedules and routines are disrupted.
“So many kids and families these days are overly-scheduled as it is,” she says. “When you throw in all the additional demands associated with holiday preparations and activities it can simply overload the circuits engendering tremendous stress for everyone, kids and adults alike.”
To help keep your child’s blues at bay, experts suggest promoting moderation in the amount of planned activities, sedentary time, and eating of holiday foods high in sugar and fat.
“Especially for younger children,” suggests Rickard, “try to keep to sleep and eating schedules as much as possible.”
Not only is behavior like Lexie’s more common than we might expect, but it’s also on the rise. One reason for the increase is the fact that so many of today’s children have to split time between two households. According to a 2005 Rutgers University study titled The State of our Unions, 37% of America’s children do not live with both parents.
And, this year, Webbink warns, we’re likely to see more children with the blues than ever before. “In my 38 years of private practice, I’m expecting this to be one of the toughest holiday seasons because of the economy,” says the therapist, who practices throughout Maryland and the D.C. metro area. “When parents are depressed themselves because they don’t have enough money to pay for heat, let alone presents, it’s going to be harder on the child.”
With gifts expected to be in shorter supply, Webbink says it’s going to be particularly important to be sensitive to children’s jealousies and frustrations.
Her most important advice? “Be aware,” she says, “and be sensitive to the extra needs of children this time of year, especially this year.”
Mary O. Parker is a mother and a freelance writer. Her articles focus on issues that affect families and children.
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