Winter Blues or Something More? Helping Kids and Teens Cope

A teen girl with long dark hair and glasses rests her chin in her hand while she sits by a windowWinter can be a particularly blue time of the year for people. Darker, colder days and the post-holiday letdown often cause a decline in mood and motivation.

It’s normal for all kids to experience emotional ups and downs, including the winter blues. With the COVID-related changes in school and social activities this winter, youth may be especially vulnerable to increased moodiness and irritability. But at least one in five kids will have a diagnosable mental health problem that needs treatment.

Parents can support their child or teen as they cope with seasonal sadness while being alert to the signs and symptoms of mental health problems that require expert care.

Validate feelings

One of the most powerful tools in your parenting toolbox is the ability to acknowledge how your 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. Try to understand their feelings. It can be tempting to offer suggestions to “fix” problems or to force your 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: signs and symptoms of a mental health problem

Mental health problems affect thinking, emotions and behavior. They can change your 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  • Is feeling very sad or withdrawn for two or more weeks.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

Know that asking your 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:

  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for help: 988.
  • Reduce the risk of suicide by removing pills 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. Call 911 or a local crisis line, or take them to an emergency room.

Get help early

It’s normal to experience some sadness, and this year it’s harder to determine whether the sadness is mild and temporary, due to the change in life from the pandemic, or whether it’s more severe. Don’t wait to get help with mental health. There’s no blame or shame in mental health problems. 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.