depressed girl with a santa hat

The holiday season is often associated with joy and togetherness: a time when families gather for meals, gifts, guests, and celebrations. However, for many--including children--it's also associated with depression and anxiety. Learn how to handle your child's holiday blues this season.

Common Causes of Holiday Depression in Kids
The causes of holiday depression in kids aren't usually too different from the reasons adults succumb to the stress of the season. The National Mental Health Association attributes fatigue as a common cause of holiday depression. But it's not just parents who feel the fatigue of the season. With changing schedules and extra activities and chores during this time of year, kids feel it, too.

While young children are more likely to react to fatigue, teens often experience the same letdown that adults do when holiday celebrations don't go quite right--whether they don't live up to their memories of past holidays or to the ideal image in their heads.

The holiday season often brings up issues of grief and loss for children. Kids may not be able to pinpoint what they're grieving, but feeling losses due to divorce or death are often triggered during the holidays, according to psychologist Dr. Mary C. Lamia, author of Children and Loss: When Holidays Trigger Grief.

Young Children
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood points out that there are causes of holiday anxiety in younger children that parents may overlook. Some common examples are:

  • Anticipation about presents: For children, the holidays are very closely tied to getting presents. Ads saturate the TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. Kids are encouraged to make lists and are asked what they want for the holidays. And in some houses, wrapped gifts lay in plain sight, just waiting to be opened. The anticipation can be too much to bear for some kids.
  • Conflicted feelings about Santa Claus: While many young children are excited about Santa's visit, others are fearful. Not only can Santa's physical appearance be scary, but the stress of trying to be "good" for a man who supposedly knows what you're thinking and controls all the presents can be overwhelming.
  • Change in routine and loss of structure: The holidays also mean vacations--both from school and, for some families, to friends' and relatives' homes. It's hard enough to be away from friends, teachers, and a regular routine, but the added stress of traveling to see unfamiliar faces and sleeping in a strange bed is sometimes beyond some children's ability to cope.

Common Signs of Holiday Depression in Kids
The signs that children aren't able to cope may not always be what you expect. While adults are typically able to talk about their holiday blues, kids are more likely to exhibit behavioral symptoms. Some common signs include:

  • Irritability
  • Clinginess/neediness
  • Opposition and defiance
  • Skill regression (for example, bedwettting may make a reappearance)
  • Over-excitability
  • Bursting into tears for no apparent reason

Helping Your Kid Cope with Holiday Blues
The most effective way to deal with your child's holiday blues is to take measures to avoid them in the first place. Talking to your child about their worries and helping them set realistic expectations for the season are important, but there are a couple of other things you can do, too. Try:

  • Scaling back your holiday. If the number of obligations and expectations is causing even one person in your household to feel overwhelmed, it may be time to take a close look at which traditions and events are important to keep and which aren't.
  • Keeping life as consistent as possible. Inform kids ahead of time of what to expect and how to behave at each holiday event. This should ease some of the anxiety caused by the unknown.
  • Keeping your own stress levels under control. Not giving in to your own holiday stress (or distress) in front of your children is invaluable, since kids often pick up on and reflect their parent's lack of calm.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, your child will still experience the holiday blues or post-holiday letdown. Most of the time you'll be able to work through it, but if they're still feeling down after a couple of weeks, it's a good idea to check in with the pediatrician or get some other type of professional assistance.