How strengthening kids’ social-emotional skills can help ward off the Winter Blues

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Let’s face it: winter can be stressful. Darker and shorter days, harsher weather, cold and flu season and the holiday bustle can be taxing for adults. But what about kids? While there are plenty of things for children to enjoy about winter—building snowmen, eating cookies, drinking hot cocoa, etc.—we often forget that winter can be just as tough on children. 

Seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD or winter depression, can affect both adults and children. Thankfully, the effects of SAD can be managed through intentional strategies. Just as it’s important for adults to develop healthy strategies to manage stress in the winter, parents and caregivers can help kids build similar tools to deal with their own winter blues. 

Social-emotional learning is defined as the process through which young people develop essential life skills like communication, problem-solving, and managing stress that help them build confidence, set and achieve goals, and grow up to be happy, healthy, thriving adults.

Learning to deal with life’s seasonal changes, both literally and figuratively, is an important part of social-emotional learning and development. So, despite the challenges that winter brings, it also presents opportunities for parents to help kids develop skills that will allow them to thrive this winter and for many winters to come. 

The basics: Quality sleep, healthy eating, and staying active. 

Quality sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise are fundamental to good mental health and overall well-being, especially in winter. Prioritizing the basics with yourself and your children helps establish what we call in psychology, a “positive emotional baseline,” or a state of feeling before an event occurs. When we have a positive, consistent baseline, we’re more equipped to manage negative experiences and emotions when they occur. 

If kids are tired, feeling cooped up, or not eating well, they’re less likely to respond in healthy or mature ways to difficult situations, whether it’s a conflict with a friend, a poor score on a quiz, or being denied a third gingerbread cookie. For all of us to stay mentally healthy this winter, prioritize the basics: consistent sleep, healthy eating, and regular exercise. 

Make a plan and stick to it 

Feeling well-rested, nourished, and comfortable in our bodies helps us feel balanced and better overall. Plus, daily exercise and movement can decrease feelings of depression and anxiety. While these basics are foundational to well-being, sticking with them is a lot easier said than done, especially for kids. If we’re trying to change habits or improve behavior, research shows that setting and tracking goals can greatly increase our chances of success.  

Here are a few tips to get started with your goal-setting and tracking: 

  • Create a family calendar to make tracking sleep, food, and movement fun and interactive. 
  • Set your goals as a family and choose someone to track your progress. 
  • For larger families, consider designating a weekly “judge” who’s responsible for holding the rest of the family accountable with consistent check-ins. 
  • Keep your goals simple, clear, and achievable, like eating a serving of veggies every day with lunch, taking the dog for a 20-minute walk after dinner, or reading 10 pages before bed to make it easier to fall asleep. 

Kids thrive when given a sense of purpose and responsibility. Setting and tracking a few simple goals can go a long way in helping them feel energized and engaged during those long winter months. 

Reframing the winter blues

When it’s colder, darker, and more difficult to socialize and be active outside of the home, children, like adults, are more inclined to experience negative emotions and for those emotions to linger. As difficult as this may be for everyone, these challenging moments are teachable ones. 

When things get tough, parents can seize the opportunity to teach and model the power of “positive reframing.” We can’t change how a situation went, but we can change how we perceive that situation and how we talk to ourselves about it. We can’t change the weather, but we can change how we respond to a forecast of frigid days and gray skies. Instead of “Oh no, more bad weather,” try “More cold weather! Let’s bundle up and go for a hike.” 

If you see that your child is stuck in a loop of negative thinking or has experienced something difficult at school or home, you can help them work through it with a few simple questions. What good could come out of this situation? What lessons or skills did I learn, and how can I apply them in the future? 

It’s important to understand that point of positive reframing is not to ignore negative emotions or to pretend like everything is perfect. Rather, by shifting our perspective, positive reframing gives us the tools to manage those emotions without being overwhelmed by them. 

The ability to positively reframe difficult situations and experiences is a crucial, lifelong skill. Winter can be tough on everyone, but it also presents countless opportunities to help us grow. 

Practice gratitude

Despite the challenges winter brings, it also presents plenty of opportunities for families to practice gratitude. Research has shown that as little as five minutes of gratitude a day can increase positive emotions in the long term. Simply listing five things you’re grateful for is an effective, evidence-based practice that has been shown to increase satisfaction and well-being for weeks afterward. 

Make it a family routine to recognize good things that are happening in your lives this winter. Create a box or jar where family members can write something they’re grateful for, big or small. Occasionally, pull a good thing from the jar and read it aloud to the whole family. Of all these strategies, gratitude may be one of the simplest activities you can do to help keep the winter blues at bay. 

Social-emotional skills for every season

The changing of seasons brings new experiences for families, many of which are difficult. Thankfully, there are plenty of strategies to help kids deal with the challenges winter brings. Developing strong social-emotional skills is essential for kids in any season, not just the winter, and parents and caregivers play a major role in the process. With practice and support from family, these social-emotional strategies become skills that will benefit children well into the future, long after the snow clears. 

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Dr. Tia Kim is a developmental psychologist and mom of two. Dr. Kim serves as Vice President of Education, Research, and Impact at Committee for Children, a global nonprofit and leading provider of the popular research-based social-emotional learning program Second Step® used in 43,000 school districts across the country and throughout Pennsylvania.