By Jeff Kimball
The holidays can often feel frenetic, with celebrations, travel, gifts to buy and share and heaps of expectations set by any number of holiday shows and commercials on television. While it can indeed be an exciting time for children, it can also be a lonely and sad time, especially for children enduring the loss of a parent.
As a longtime widower (18 years) I have seen first-hand the post-holiday struggle with my own children, and write to raise awareness for the benefit of others. Seeing the signs of post-holiday blues, modeling pro-social behavior and getting help are important in navigating this difficult time period.
A 2011 study, "The Christmas Effect on Psychopathology," 1 conducted by Robert Sansone, MD, a professor at Wright State University, found a decrease in the overall utilization of psychiatric emergency services and admissions, self-harm behavior, and suicide attempts/completions during the holiday, but an increase following the Christmas holiday.
Seeing the Signs
From my anecdotal perspective, seeing inconsistent behavior is my first red flag. Normally affable and able to sleep well, if my children become irritable, withdrawn and unable to sleep, it’s a sign that something is brewing. According to Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, seasonal depression symptoms include anxiety, sudden mood change, stress, irritability, insomnia and constant rumination.
However the behavior manifests itself, I encourage parents to be present, without judgement. Of course one needs to correct incorrect behavior, but recognize that the behavior likely stems from a place of deep hurt. One can correct an action without personalizing it – their feelings are a cry for help. So in these cases, I try to model pro-social behaviors. My children and I often play games like bananagrams (family favorite), and as we play we begin talking. My goal is to meet my girls where they are, and create opportunities for them to share. Because grief isn’t linear, it can come at any time, so it is not surprising that it shows up after the holidays once things become more quiet.
Even when my girls aren’t in therapy, we plan a January counseling session each year so that we can check-in with our feelings and understand what may be happening. We all tend to run at a very fast pace in our lives, so when the holidays come and we actually slow down, the feelings of loss tend to come in like a tsunami. Providing the children with a a consistent opportunity to talk to a professional, even if they turn it down, empowers them to take an active role in shoring up their mental health.
I know what it is like to feel that empty, lonely feeling during and after the holidays, longing for someone who has died. It is hard to sit with the pain, but now when I do that, the memories of the loving moments come back as well.
If you need help this holiday season, reach out. If you are in pain, know that you aren’t alone.
1. Sansone RA, Sansone LA. The christmas effect on psychopathology. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience 2011;8(12):10-13.