By Dr. Kristen Yule, pediatric psychologist at CHOC
The end of the year can be a very busy time for many families, with breaks from school and fun activities planned to celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the New Year. Families often spend more time together at home during these months decorating, cooking and celebrating together. Especially towards the end of the year, this time tends to be filled with anticipation looking forward to gifts, treats and fun festivities.
However, there tends to be an abrupt transition from holiday time off to the daily grind of school and work after the New Year, which can be challenging to navigate and lead to a “let down” effect and “post-holiday blues” in children, teens and adults.
Signs of post-holiday blues in children and teens
Post-holiday blues, as opposed to clinical depression, is usually not long-lasting and most people swing “back to normal” or their usual self after a bit of time. Emotions can be difficult to regulate, especially during the holiday season, when it can feel like you are riding an emotional roller-coaster with ups and downs.
Children and teens, as opposed to adults, are more likely to express their feelings and emotions through behaviors rather than words, such as being more irritable, spending more time alone and not wanting to go to school.
School refusal, in particular, is quite common after holiday breaks and can be a sign of post-holiday blues. For some kids and teens, school is a place that causes stress and anxiety due to worrying about their academic performance, ability to make and keep friends and/or extracurriculars. School can also be a place where youth are bullied by their peers. As a result, the anticipation of returning to school can lead to resistance and heightened feelings of stress and worry after breaks from school.
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How can parents help youth cope with post-holiday blues?
1. Talk about going back to school
Many children and teens have some feelings of stress, worry and anxiety related to school. Although some may not voluntarily share what is on their mind, they likely have great insight and the ability to share their thoughts and feelings with you. The best way to find out what might be bothering them is by asking them directly. For example, you can say, “I noticed that you seem more [emotion] when school is mentioned. Are you worried about going back to school?”
Similarly, it is important to encourage your child to ask you questions so you can better understand what your child is thinking and feeling. For instance, you can say, “I am wondering if you have any concerns about going back to school? I remember not wanting to go back to school when I was your age. Sometimes I would ask my parents questions or tell them how I was feeling and that would help. I am here to listen and support you in any way that I can.”
One of the best ways for parents to provide support is by normalizing their feelings of worry and nervousness. Acknowledging and reassuring your child that their feelings are common is extremely important. It provides them comfort, support and hope in their ability to overcome their current feelings and successfully return to school. It is also important to let your child know that it is possible to be both worried and brave when going back to school.
During the early and preschool years, it can be helpful to write a story with your child about going back to daycare or school, including the daily routine involved.
For children in elementary, middle and high school, it can be helpful to arrange a buddy system with someone your child trusts (such as a close friend, sibling or older peer), and have your child walk into school with that person. Children and teens may not fully know why they do not want to go back to school. Therefore, it can be sometimes helpful to first talk to your child about their resistance in order to help (them and yourself) better understand some of the reasons for not wanting to return to school.
Next, it can be helpful to brainstorm and discuss possible solutions with your child. Depending on the problem your child is facing, it may be necessary to involve school administrators and guidance counselors to implement solutions to best help your child.
For additional information and advice, please see CHOC’s back-to-school anxiety remedies and School refusal: When a child won’t go to school – Harvard Health.
2. Get back into a school routine
Although this may not be very fun, children and teens do best with a routine. Children and teens tend to thrive with routines and structure. Following the holiday break, routine helps youth develop the best mindset for the rest of the school year, as well as focus their attention on something other than wishing for a never-ending holiday break.
Collaborating with your child to create a visual schedule of their morning and after-school routine can be a helpful way to start the conversation about going back to school, allow your child some sense of control by identifying which parts of their routine can be done independently, and to figure out which part of their daily routine they need parental support. It is also important to schedule time for fun and social activities during their after-school routine and on the weekends. This provides them something fun to look forward to and helps break up the school week.
3. Make physical health a priority
There is a powerful connection between our minds and our bodies. The brain relies on the body to function properly, and vice versa. By taking care of our physical health, we are taking care of our mental health. Ways to prioritize your child’s physical health includes making sure they get enough quality sleep, exercising on a regular basis, and having a nutrient-rich diet.
It can be helpful to keep your child’s bedtime and wake-up time during the holidays around the same time as when they go to school. This can help their bodies stay in synch with the school routine and can help reduce tired mornings and difficulties getting out of bed when they return to school. These are some of the top healthy lifestyle recommendations to help boost mood and manage feelings of sadness and stress.
4. Create quality family time
The holiday time can be filled with more family time than a typical week filled with school, after-school activities and work. Building in quality, enjoyable family time each week can build stronger relationships and create memories of special moments with the family. Some ideas include playing board games, going on a long walk, hiking, doing a puzzle together, completing an arts and craft activity, and so much more.
Ask your child what they might want to do as a family. Providing children and teens regular family time gives them something to look forward to as well as creates small traditions even after the holidays are over. Families tend to have the most success when they make these moments more on the quiet, relaxed side and everyone puts away (and silences) their personal electronic devices.
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The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.