Winter can be a blue time of year for people of all ages, particularly as the days get shorter, darker and colder. These ‘winter blues’ can include feeling seasonally sad, irritable or fatigued, and can sometimes cause a decline in mood and motivation.
While it’s normal for all children to experience emotional ups and downs, including the winter blues, at least one in five kids will have a diagnosable mental health problem that needs treatment.
“People have high expectations around the holidays,” said Dr. Elizabeth McCauley, associate director of Seattle Children’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine. “And sometimes those expectations are too high for what the holidays will bring. You get a mental image that things are supposed to be perfect, like in a story book. But the reality can be more down to earth.”
Here are some supportive ways that parents and caregivers can help their child or teen cope this winter, while staying alert to the signs and symptoms of mental health concerns that require expert care.
Set realistic expectations
Dr. McCauley advises parents to incorporate kids in holiday planning to help set realistic expectations for holiday events. Kids can become disappointed when things don’t live up to what they’ve imagined, which can trigger sadness.
“Establish expectations that fit in with your family’s interests and budgetary constraints,” she explained. “Have open conversations about the hype of the holidays versus reality. Acknowledge if you are not able to plan a special trip or purchase as many gifts this year. Get kids involved in planning activities so they have something to look forward to while they’re out of school for the holidays.”
Make a plan for the holidays
Dr. McCauley recommends incorporating some structure into the holiday break.
“Transitioning from school to the holiday break can be difficult for children who are used to their normal routine,” she added. “Structure is great for many children and can reduce worry. Knowing what events are coming up gives children and adolescents a useful heads up so they know what is expected. They should also be encouraged to let parents know about things they want to do with their free time.”
Incorporating structure into the holidays doesn’t mean children can’t have fun during their break. Bake cookies or play board games, said Dr. McCauley. The simplest of activities can be the most fun. Also, try to incorporate activities that focus on giving rather than receiving.
“Plan an activity that will give a child a sense of joy from giving,” she said. “It’s great to involve kids in activities that allow them to make a donation, or volunteer their time, as opposed to focusing on what gifts they will receive.”
One of the most powerful tools in a parent’s toolbox is the ability to acknowledge how a child or teen is feeling. Check in regularly to learn how they’re doing. Listen more than you talk as you give them your full attention and try to understand their feelings. It can be tempting to offer suggestions to “fix” problems or to force a child to look at the bright side, but it’s better that they feel heard and validated.
Encourage your child to accept and label their emotions. Ask them to think of ideas for how to cope when they start to feel sad, mad, scared or otherwise upset. Let them take the lead as they learn coping skills that work for them.
Focus on healthy habits
Fight the urge to let healthy habits slide this winter. Help your child set up and maintain a predictable schedule to provide a reassuring rhythm to their days, and yours.
Work as a family to get enough sleep and exercise, choose healthy foods and drinks, and use positive ways to manage stress, like spending time on a hobby or taking a few minutes for daily meditation. Encourage your child to get outside, even on the rainy days. These habits are important for physical and mental health.
When it’s more than feeling blue
Mental health problems affect thinking, emotions and behavior. They can change a child’s ability to function in school, at home or in social settings. Talk to your child or teen’s doctor if you notice one or more of the signs from this list, or if you have any question about their mental health. Notice if your child:
- Is feeling very sad or withdrawn for two or more weeks
- Has severe mood swings
- Shows big changes in behavior
- Is having many problems in friendships and other relationships
- Has a sudden overwhelming fear or worry that does not match the situation
- Seems unusually irritable
- Displays explosive anger
- Has trouble sleeping
- Changes their eating habits
- Loses weight
- Spends so much time alone that it gets in the way of doing other activities
- Starts hanging out (in person or online) with peers who are an unhealthy influence
- Is taking new risks, like using drugs or alcohol
- Has lots of stomachaches or headaches
- Avoids school or stops doing as well as they used to in school
Ask about suicide
It’s important for parents and caregivers to know that asking a child directly if they are thinking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide. If they say they are thinking about suicide, stay calm and:
- Contact the free and confidential Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24/7 by calling or texting the number 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
- Reduce the risk of suicide by removing pills (over-the-counter and prescription) and firearms from your home. If you can’t remove them, place them in a safe, lockbox or other secure place.
- If they are in immediate danger of harming themselves, don’t leave them alone. Take your child to the closest Emergency Department (ED). If you cannot safely transport them, please call 911. Tell them you have a mental health emergency and need your child taken to the ED. You can also use your county crisis line for help with problem-solving.
Get help early
It’s normal to experience some sadness. When it’s something more severe, don’t wait to get help. There is no single cause of depression, and it can occur for many reasons – family conflict, school pressures or problems with peers. Depression is also more common among kids or teens with a family history of the condition.
For parents, it’s important to differentiate when a child is feeling a little blue versus experiencing depression. If feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks gets in the way of a child’s or teen’s ability to function in school, at home or in social settings, Dr. McCauley recommends talking to a healthcare provider.
Effective help is available and can make an important difference in helping your child or teen get back on track with healthy development and life.
- Mental Health Resource Hub
- Supporting Mental Wellness and Family Life During COVID-19
- Behavioral Health Toolbox for Families: Supporting Children and Teens During the COVID-19 Pandemic
- Youth Mental Health First Aid Class
- Washington’s Mental Health Referral Service for Children and Teens
- Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development (seattlechildrens.org)