When kids return to school after the holidays, school counselors often see their caseloads rise.
"We get reports from school counselors that they have a lot more kids lined up to see them because the kids are melancholy, apathetic or anxious," said Clifton Saper, Ph.D., an Amita Health clinical psychologist who specializes in individual, adolescent and family psychotherapy.
In many cases, kids are suffering from the post-holiday blues, a letdown that can occur after holiday festivities come to an end. "Most kids and most parents have unrealistic expectations of the holidays, so there's often this letdown feeling after the holidays of `Oh, it wasn't what I thought it was supposed to be,' " Saper said.
Kids also can find themselves dealing with feelings of loneliness or anxiety. They might be missing a parent or grandparent who was absent during the holidays. They might be adjusting to new family dynamics because of a newborn sibling. Or they might be comparing their holidays -- in terms of gifts received or trips taken -- with those of friends.
Winter's short, frigid days can exacerbate the post-holiday blues, limiting kids' time outdoors, reducing the vitamin D they get from sunlight, and negatively affecting their moods, Saper said.
What's a parent to do?
For starters, be aware of any changes in a child's behavior.
"Sometimes, these changes are not very evident, so it's really important to talk to your kid, listen -- really listen -- when the kid talks, and validate how the kid is feeling," Saper said, adding that parents should resist the urge to fix things. "Empathize with how they might be feeling. Show them you can understand their disappointment or sadness at this time of year. You want to teach them that they can trust how they feel inside and it's good to talk about it, not avoid it, and then be able to move forward."
Parents should encourage children to look ahead, asking them what they're looking forward to doing and what goals they have in the weeks and months ahead. "It's important for the kid to come up with ideas for moving forward, rather than the parent imposing them," Saper said.
He also suggested that parents play with their kids and plan family activities that strengthen parent-child bonds.
"During the holidays, parents generally play a lot with their kids, but as people get back to their routines, parents often let this slide," Saper said. "It's important to do something with your kids, and even though it's really cold, to get outside, to be in the sunlight. Bundle up and go for a short walk, or go to an indoor swimming pool. Don't just hunker down in a small room in your house."
Family activities that involve giving to others -- such as volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating toys to disadvantaged families -- can help lift the post-holiday blues, Saper said. "Kids feel better when they're giving to others," he said.
In general, parents should take steps to limit the time that kids spend on smartphones, tablets and video games, Saper said. Excessive screen time, he added, can lead to isolation and other issues.
Limiting screen time can be difficult during winter, but parents can set an example by reducing their own screen time, getting outdoors and participating in other activities.
Parents also should make sure that kids return to a healthy diet and get back to their regular sleep cycle after the holidays. "Even a decrease in sleep of 20 minutes a day can cause a great disruption in how a kid can function," Saper said.
If a child's post-holiday blues last longer than two weeks, with the child remaining unhappy, anxious, irritable or apathetic, and/or not sleeping or eating normally, parents should seek professional help, because their child could be suffering from depression, Saper said. Parents with questions about distinguishing the post-holiday blues from depression can call Amita Health Behavioral Health Services at (855) 383-2224.
• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Amita Health. Clifton J. Saper, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with Amita Health Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital Hoffman Estates, specializing in individual, adolescent and family psychotherapy. He also serves as Amita Health's assistant vice president for behavioral medicine integration. Amita Health consists of nine acute and specialty care hospitals, including Amita Health Alexian Brothers Women & Children's Hospital Hoffman Estates. For more information about AMITA Health's pediatric programs, visit www.amitahealth.org.