#TeenTalk: Beating the Winter Blues

As we patiently wait for spring to return to our corner of the state, the deep, dark winter months can seem an eternity. Shorter days and colder weather limit time outdoors, and the gray skies reflect our mood. While April may be the cruelest month, perhaps T.S. Eliot never experienced February in Oklahoma. For parents and kids alike, the shortest month of the year can mean short tempers, short attention spans and a shortage of endorphins. While we can’t order up a dose of sunshine, there are things we can do to help our kids beat the winter blues.

Ellen Ungerland is a counselor at Monte Cassino, a midtown elementary and middle school. “I think when kids start getting down, they start to act out a lot, especially if they haven’t been able to go outside and exercise…They have a tendency to get kind of grumpy…and maybe more aggressive behavior because they don’t have the chance to physically release some of those feelings or to get outside and get some of their energy out,” she explained.

Ungerland believes that a poor diet can compound the problem. “Sometimes in the winter, we try to make ourselves feel better by eating things that aren’t good for us, like a lot of sweets, candies and cookies,” she noted. Rather than refined sugars and carbs, Ungerland counsels healthy choices instead. “Real nutritional snacks do make kids feel better and they stay healthier in the winter time, also.”

Planning a weekly special activity for the whole family can be a mood booster, too. “Have a theme night, like a game night or Taco Tuesday,” she suggests. “Just something that everybody can look forward to. That can be a real positive thing to know something fun or exciting is going to happen.”

Monique Washington is a Certified Personal Trainer with a degree in Exercise Science and owner of Physiques by Monique. In her work with adolescents and adults, Washington recognizes the role regular physical activity plays in beating back the blues. “Well, of course there’s all the obvious benefits of decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and all that good stuff,” she noted. “But there’s more to it on a cognitive level, as well. You’ve heard of the term ‘the runner’s high’. Well, it’s not just for runners, that feeling of euphoria you get during and immediately after any type of exercise. Basically, your body is releasing endorphins and other types of hormones that just give you a feeling of well being.” According to Washington, there are other benefits as well. “It’s going to help you sleep better…It’s going to help your brain work better.”

Kids don’t need a formal exercise program, Washington explained. “They don’t need to lift weights or hit the treadmill… most kids get their exercise during recess or extracurricular activities, whether its basketball or soccer practice, ballet, anything like that. So it’s very important for parents to get their kids involved in additional things after school,” she advised. “I always say that a healthy body equals a healthy mind.”

As a parent, how do you distinguish between a case of the winter blahs and something more serious?

Dr. Peter Wenger, a Family Practice physician with St. John Clinic in Tulsa, noted that changes in a child’s sleeping habits or a general withdrawal from normal social activities could be a sign of depression. “When they’re withdrawn and not interacting with their friends, that would be a really big warning sign right there. When they are spending more and more time alone…Any indirect or direct references to self-harm, no matter how insignificant they sound…pay attention to those kinds of statements,” he advised.

If there is cause for concern, “The first step would be to contact their family doctor for guidance or for a referral to a mental health specialist.”

For a mild case of the blues, Dr. Wenger suggests, “trying to increase activity, exercise in particular if that’s possible. Try to get them to spend less time in their room alone. There’s always the option of a session or two of counseling with a qualified professional.”

While it may not be possible to simply pack up and head to sunnier shores, there are some very simple and practical steps we can take to help our kids when they’re feeling down. Exercise, diet and the great outdoors – even if we have to bundle up against that cold wind sweeping down our plains – can go a long way toward lifting our spirits. In the meantime, keep an eye on that groundhog and hope for a cloudy day.

JulieJulie Wenger Watson is a freelance writer who’s worked in all aspects of music promotion. She’s also Co-Director of “Live From Cain’s,” a public radio show pilot.

Categories: mental health, Tweens & Teens