Post-holiday stress in children Excitement, fantasy often replaced by mundane reality of January

January 08, 1991|By Lawrence M. Kutner | Lawrence M. Kutner,New York Times

THE NEW YEAR HITS MANY CHILDREN with an emotional dTC thud as the excitement and fantasy of the holidays are replaced by the mundane reality of arithmetic tests and tuna casserole.

For some, it is a time of great stress as they try to make sense of all they have done and felt over the past few months.

"To children, Christmas is built up as a time when all sorts of wonderful and important things will happen," said Dr. Lynn P. Rehm, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston who studies depression among children. "And they don't happen."

Dr. Rita P. Underberg, a child psychologist and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said: "The holiday is never as good as what the children see on television in the commercials or on Christmas cards. I've been warning parents not to be discouraged if their children regress emotionally a bit after the holidays."

Children who become more demanding, clinging and whiny at this time of year are usually tired or overstimulated.

Their problems are almost always solved by sleep and a return to the old pre-holiday routines at home. But for other families, post-holiday stress is more serious.

"We know that adults tend to become more depressed after the holidays," said Dr. David Fassler, a child psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt., and an instructor at the Harvard Medical School. "We see an increase in referrals to mental health centers in January."

Children may also show bouts of sadness, either because of their own disappointment or in response to their parents' emotions.

"Depression in children is often a reflection of depression in their parents," Rehm said. "In one outpatient clinic where we did our research, more than 40 percent of the children who were diagnosed as depressed had mothers who were also depressed."

Parents and teachers are more likely to notice children's depression when they appear sad and withdrawn. They may have nightmares or lose their appetites. But not all depressed children show those symptoms. In fact, some show the opposite.

"Some kids will express depression by increasing their activity," Fassler said.

Particularly at risk this time of year are children whose parents are divorced, remarried or deceased. They feel the contrasts between the idealized family celebrations and their own festivities most acutely.

Shuttling between two homes or celebrating without one parent can resensitize children to the pain of their parents' divorce. Trying to combine two families' traditions when a parent has remarried can make them feel awkward and out of place.

Not having a father or a mother around can rekindle their sense of loss and mourning.

"Children feel a responsibility to make their parents happy," Fassler said. "This time of year can be particularly confusing because they know that everyone's supposed to feel happy. But the holidays can bring out painful memories that may be put off until after the celebrating is over."

Preschoolers and children in early elementary school who are depressed often don't talk about feeling sad. Instead, they may say they are bad children, because they have difficulty distinguishing between doing something bad and being someone bad.

If they have been unable to make their parents happy, they may conclude that they have done something wrong.

While a moderate amount of sadness is normal and nothing to worry about, parents should become concerned if their children lose interest in their usual activities, complain about vague physical problems, suddenly become fearful, have nightmares or refuse to go to school. Children usually overcome these problems with a little support.

"If your child seems to be depressed, help him realize that his feelings don't make him a bad person," Rehm advised. "If the child misbehaves, let him know that although you don't approve of what he did, you still love him."

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