The holidays can be an exciting time for kids, what with presents, school winding down, and parties and family get-togethers. But for some children, the holidays are one the most difficult times of the year. Figuring out if your kids fall in that category and are hiding sadness, or perhaps even depression, can be exceptionally difficult. But it's also extremely important.
"Kids will do a lot to hide their emotions, particularly if there is a family tension of some sort," said Mary Fristad, Ph.D, director of the Research and Psychological Services Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at The Ohio State University.
In order for a parent to pick up on possible clues that a child is not doing well, two things need to have happen. The first, being able to look for any signs, is more difficult than it sounds. Parents often may not realize that they are so busy themselves that they aren't able to really hone in on their children, or they may be part of the problem.
"I've had parents tell me many times before they have been arguing, but they have been careful to keep it private," Fristad said. "Then I talk to the child and the first thing they talk about is their parents fighting all the time."
The rush of the season can also make signals more difficult to spot. Parents are often working full-time and trying to put together a great holiday season, and it can be a whirlwind.
"Parents are more distracted (during the holidays) and they have a long to-do list and it is sort of a natural time when it's easy to focus on other things," said Cari McCarty, Ph.D, research associate professor at Seattle Children's Research Institute.
McCarty and Fristad said there are plenty of reasons that the holidays can be extraordinarily difficult for kids. Some of the reasons can be obvious: a divorce, death or illness in the family. Others may not be as obvious, such as peer pressure at school, or a difficult family dynamic at home. And some kids, perhaps because they want so badly for things to be perfect, simply put too much pressure on the holidays to be a cure-all for their problems, McCarty said.
"There can be a discrepancy between what's reality and what are kids' expectations this time of the year," she said. "High expectations are formed, about what gifts kids will get to how families will be when they are together and what traditions will be followed.
"And then," McCarty said, "there are realities."
McCarty and Fristad urged parents to be on the lookout for the following signs that their kids aren't handling the holidays well.
- Your child is often irritable
- He or she withdraws from activities that used to be favorites
- His or her normal appetite or sleep habits change
- Recurring headaches or other pains that are unusual for your child
These are all signs of a child dealing with stress. If you see the signs, talk to your child, Fristad and McCarty said, and consider having a trusted adult—maybe another family member or close friend—do the same. But there's a point where a bumpy stretch becomes something more serious. Consider professional intervention in these situations, McCarty and Fristad said:
- At the point of "functional impairment," according to Fristad. "When it really gets in the way of life—family life, getting along with peers or functions at school," then it's time to look for professional help.
- When it lasts more than two weeks, according to McCarty. "It's very normative to have these blips in moods," she said. But at two weeks, it's time to suspect something potentially more serious.
- Shoplifting, substance abuse or other criminal behavior.
Parents looking for advice or professional help can check with their pediatrician or with counselors and experts within their child's school system. Another place to start is www.effectivechildtherapy.com, created in part by the Society of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. The site offers information on a variety of psychological problems that routinely affect kids, said McCarty, who is also involved with the site.
The holidays are meant to be a time filled with joy, sharing and family togetherness. If your child is struggling, helping her through the season can be the best gift you can give.