I did all the things to ensure my kids had a nice holiday. Now they're grumpy and whiny.

Actually, I'm feeling blue, too. Help?

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

We tried our damnedest to have a decent holiday this year, and I think we mostly pulled it off. And I know we have so much to be thankful for. But now, my kids are moping around the house, listless and complaining and driving me nuts. Come to think of it, I feel pretty down in the dumps too. Is my kid — and am I — the asshole?!


Scrooge Dad

Dear Scrooge Dad,

Nobody’s the asshole here. Actually, that’s not true. 2020 is the asshole. 2020 has been an obnoxious, despicable asshole.

But no, your kids are not the problem, even if they’re legitimately driving you insane. And I promise, you’re not alone. Remember the Instagram video you saw of your friends’ children politely taking turns opening gifts on Christmas morning? Today, those kids probably threw pancakes at their parents’ heads because they didn’t have enough maple syrup on them.

I know it feels like your kids should be happy right now, after everything you’ve done give them as lovely a holiday as possible. The fact that they’re sulking probably makes you think they’re spoiled brats. This year, parents everywhere “are likely to feel angry that their kids aren't as grateful as they should be,” explained clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore when I spoke to her over the phone earlier this week. (Kennedy-Moore, by the way, has just published a free e-book for kids on how to grow friendships during the pandemic.)

But as I discussed in my last newsletter, it’s entirely possible that your kids right now feel grateful and disappointed at the same time, and the latter doesn’t cancel out the former. Our kids have good reasons to feel disappointed (as do we). They have been looking forward to the holidays — or shall we say, clinging onto the feelings of hope and joy that usually accompany the holidays — for the past several months. But now the holidays are ending. That magic carpet that our kids have been riding on is being jerked away, and they (and we) are falling into what looks like an empty and endless January.

The sadness we sometimes feel after much-anticipated events or accomplishments is a well-known phenomenon. Some psychologists call it the let-down effect, although I’ve also heard people refer to it as post-adventure syndrome or, in reference to the sadness we feel after we’re met a personal or career goal, the arrival fallacy. No one knows exactly why it happens, but some psychologists speculate that a sudden drop in stress hormones, or in feel-good brain chemicals such as dopamine or serotonin, may play a role.

In essence, too, we are mourning the end of a season that gave us much-needed feelings of nostalgia, hope and togetherness (but that also probably didn’t live up to our expectations and made us miss our friends and family even more). As University of Wisconsin health psychologist Shilagh A. Mirgain explained in an article, “when you think about these larger events, they’re like a hub in a wheel: There’s a way your life orients around it, and then when you remove it, there is a hole.” This year, we’re left with an especially massive and vacuous hole. (And some of us are truly in mourning, having lost loved ones to the coronavirus.) But there are things we can do to help our kids, and ourselves, get through this post-holiday pandemic funk.

  1. Let your kids have negative feelings. Acknowledge them, and give your kids extra love and support.

For a story I wrote for The New York Times last summer, I interviewed child psychologists and psychiatrists about the best ways to handle kid sadness. We often feel like it’s our job to rescue our kids from their negative feelings, but actually, the best thing is to give them the space to have and hold those feelings. “The way you help a kid is by managing the sad feelings, not by denying them, not by distracting them,” said Madeline Levine, a psychologist based in San Francisco and the author of Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World, when I interviewed her for my article.

Essentially, Levine explained, you want to let your kids know you’re there for them. If they want to talk, you’re there to listen; if they don’t, that’s OK too. If you’re not sure how to broach the topic, talk about your own feelings. If you’re sad that Christmas or Hanukkah is over, tell your child that — let them know you’re struggling, because that lets your child know he’s not alone and that you won’t be mad if he shares his emotions with you, too. (For more on how to tell the difference between normal kid sadness and clinical depression that might require professional help, read my piece.)

Keep in mind, too, that kids may communicate their unhappy feelings in unexpected ways. Maybe your children aren’t moping around, but instead are picking fights with their siblings or breaking house rules. Or perhaps they’re regressing — they’re behaving in ways that remind you of how they behaved, say, two years ago. Regression often happens when kids feel unsettled or anxious and want more attention from their parents; to address it, give kids a little extra reassurance and love, which can provide the security they crave. (For more on regression, why it happens and what to do about it, read this other New York Times piece I wrote last year.)

  1. Let yourself feel sad, too — and write about your feelings if you can. Consider the things you can control, and try to tweak them.

It’s important for you to feel your feelings too, even if you don’t like them. Earlier this week, a piece I’ve been working on for several months was published in Scientific American. It’s all about evidence-based strategies to get through the upcoming pandemic winter. I interviewed psychologists who work with people who’ve suffered serious traumas, survived natural disasters, and face chronic pain or disability. I asked them: What kinds of coping mechanisms help when people are facing truly difficult situations?

One thing I heard over and over again is that it’s crucial to accept your fear and sadness as valid and real, and to understand that these feelings do not make you any less tough. As Mana Ali, a rehabilitation psychologist at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., explained to me, “I always tell my patients, ‘It’s totally normal that the anxiety is there — it’s about managing it.” We tend to think that fear and worrying are bad and that strength is the absence of those things, but that is not the case, she said: “You can feel scared and fearful and angry and resentful and simultaneously be a victor and be resilient. Reminding people that they are both, versus either/or, is extremely important.”

One way to acknowledge and work through your negative feelings is to write about them. In the 1980s, psychologist James Pennebaker conducted a study in which he and his colleagues told college students to write about their stressful experiences and feelings for 15 minutes a day, four days a week. Those students were half as likely to visit the student health center over the next six months as students who did not write their feelings down. It’s unclear exactly why journaling helps, but one possibility is that expressing our feelings openly helps us move on to the next important step, which is asking the question, what can I do to help myself feel better?

When thinking about that question, it’s important to consider which aspects of our lives we have control over, and which ones we don’t. Maybe you just lost your job; there’s nothing you could have done about that. But perhaps you can take a few steps this week to address your growing financial concerns, for instance by creating a new household budget or researching financial relief programs you might be eligible for.

The idea, as I explained in my piece, is to think of problems as obstacles you can overcome (at least partially) rather than as insurmountable hurdles you can do nothing about. There are certainly aspects of this pandemic we cannot control — but by focusing on the things we can tweak at least a bit and by thinking of ourselves as resilient and adaptable, we will fare better. For more on these and other coping strategies that might help, read my Scientific American piece.

  1. Schedule fun family activities over the next few days, ideally outside.

One of the hardest things about Christmas for me is that we go 60 to zero in a matter of minutes. We’re all so excited and filled with anticipation, and then suddenly, boom, it’s over — and we expect our kids (and ourselves) to not only be OK with that, but also to help clean up the heaping mess of wrapping paper. I don’t know about your children, but mine don’t handle that transition very well. And that’s in part because it’s too much of a change too fast. “In schools, teachers don't go from ‘woohoo!,’ running around at recess, to ‘let’s sit quietly and do individual work,’” Kennedy-Moore says. “They bring kids down by steps. And that that could be a good strategy for parents as well.”

In other words, it might be wise to schedule a few fun activities over the next few days — don’t just assume your kids will be fine entertaining themselves. (For more on the importance of structure and routine during the holidays, read my last newsletter.) Maybe take the family sledding or go on a hike. Bake something fun together, or play some board games. The goal is to let your kids down slowly, not all at once — to schedule some joy into their days even though the biggest holiday events are already over.

Speaking of hikes and sledding, getting outside is a good idea, even if it’s cold out. Research suggests that physical activity outside has added mental health benefits compared with the same activities done inside. Yesterday, we ventured outside with 18,000 layers on to play Capture the Flag as a family, which I’m quite sure I haven’t done since I was eight. I nearly froze, and my daughter ran straight into her brother’s arm at one point and got a bloody nose, but I still think it was worth it. If you can’t get outdoors, at least find some way to be active. “Physical activity has a track record as both a preventative and a treatment for depression,” said Dr. Gregory N. Clarke, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who studies the prevention of depression at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, when I interviewed him for The New York Times.

  1. Remind yourself (and your kids) of the hope that’s rising out of the darkness.

There’s plenty to be sad about, but good things are on the horizon, too. January 20th is inching ever closer, and with the new administration will come science-based policies that will save lives. Now, too, we have vaccines, and although it might be a while before you or your kids get them, every injection indirectly protects us all. We’re also learning more and more about the virus, and because of that, Covid-19 death rates have dropped significantly over the past ten months — so if you get infected this winter, you’re less likely to end up extremely sick than if you’d been infected last spring or summer. Finally — this isn’t a matter of life or death, but boy, it makes me happy — as of the winter solstice last week, the days began getting longer again, and the nights began getting shorter.

Look, there’s plenty to be despondent about, and many of us have suffered immensely. I’m not trying to shrug off the heartbreak and the stress. But it can help to periodically remind yourself, and your kids, of the good news and the hope. The holidays might be over now, and that’s a real bummer. But the passage of time means we’re closer to the end of this horrific pandemic, even if we aren’t sure exactly when that moment will come.

Got a question you want answered here? Email me at melindawmoyer at gmail dot com with the subject line “Is my kid the asshole?” I’ll keep you anonymous, promise.

How To Raise Kids Who Aren't Assholes

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