You know that old quote: Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.
Well, a week or so ago, my colleagues and I talked about it. It went something like this: “My grades always dropped this time of year,” one said. She pondered whether kids actually can get seasonal affective disorder — a type of depression that is tied to changes in the seasons — and said it seems that her 8-year-old could have it.
“When I say my kids are literally climbing the walls, I mean that: Literally. Climbing. Walls.”
That one was me.
The holidays are over. The pretty snow that results in sledding and sipping hot chocolate has yet to really appear. But that cold, gray dreariness that leads to wall climbing, tough times paying attention in school and a general grumpy mood is here to stay for a while.
So let’s not just talk about it. Let’s do something to get us through these winter blahs, and help our kids thrive at the same time.
“It’s been said that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” says Scott Sampson, author of the upcoming book “How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love With Nature” and vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. (Some of you might know him as the host of the popular PBS show “Dinosaur Train.”)
If your kids are balking about getting outdoors or leaving screens, then “it’s time to execute an intervention,” he says.
If there’s snow, get into it. If there are woods nearby, go play. And parents: Stop with the “look, don’t touch” directive when it comes to nature, he advises. Encourage kids to dig in the dirt, pick leaves, turn over rocks, splash in ponds and hold wriggling worms.
“Loosen up and find some hands-on nature experiences for the kids,” he says. “Don’t worry so much about the dirt and scrapes. Clothes and bodies can be washed; cuts heal. Nature connection is a contact sport, and nature can take it.”
Kids need physical activity, perhaps more in the wintertime than any other time, because it takes more effort to get moving. Many studies show the critical importance of unstructured free play, “the kind initiated and driven by kids, for boosting creativity, independence, confidence and a host of other characteristics,” Sampson said.
The key is to make a habit of getting outside, if only for a few minutes, every day, he said. Pretty soon, your kids will realize that being outside is “a ton of fun” and it won’t take much coaxing to get them there.
If they are the kinds of kids who can’t give up screens, mix the digital and the real. Have them take pictures outside and make a photo essay afterward. Let them take video of their exploits, then make a short film and send it to friends.
Also, he pointed out, you don’t have to make a big trek to a state park or hiking trails to get outside. The back yard, school yard or playground works just as well for getting some exercise and discovering nature.
Christine Carter, author of “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents,” says that happiness doesn’t just happen, it’s like a muscle that needs to be exercised. So what to do when things are less than happy during the cold months?
Rethink what you believe makes everyone happy. The biggest thing she sees is kids spending too much time with iPads, TVs and other screens.
“You need to help kids distinguish between what they think of as true happiness . . . as opposed to gratification like playing Angry Birds,” she said.
In fact, she likened screen time to what we adults call retail therapy. It may feel like it helps in the moment, but it doesn’t provide true joy.
Look for the things that will contribute to overall happiness and satisfaction in life, she said. Studies (and let’s face it, our own personal anecdotes) show that kids and grown-ups alike find true satisfaction in helping others. So find your way downtown to the homeless shelter to help, if your kids are old enough. If they aren’t, look for another way to contribute.
Carter likes the Web site Bigheartedfamilies.org. It has several lists of activities that kids of various ages can do to help others: Make greeting cards for children with chronic illnesses, decorate lunch bags for Meals on Wheels, write letters to soldiers, assemble birthday bags for families in need. The site includes details on how to make the items and where to send them.
“Inevitably, they will spend some time on the iPad. It’s not all or nothing,” she says. But talk to the kids about it. Tell them you’re noticing their mood changes after too much time in front of a screen, and ask them how they feel. “Help kids identify which activities make them feel good. When do they feel awe or gratitude, optimism, love, an actual real emotion, as opposed to a hit of pleasure?”
Push furniture back to create a good play space, advises Patti Cancellier, education director at the Parent Education Program (PEP) in Kensington. Pillow and sheet forts can occupy a lot of time. Allow kids to use bubbles inside. Blow up 20 balloons and make up games where they try to keep them all in the air or play soccer. Have an indoor Olympics and work with the kids to make up the events.
“We had a tiny exercise trampoline for the kids to jump on” on very cold days when her children were younger, she says. It helped get that extra energy out on miserable days.
She also suggests keeping up the routines as much as possible. If you do that, then the empty spaces where kids ask for screen time won’t occur as much.
“If they know it [screen time] will happen at 3 p.m. and are certain you won’t give in, they’ll stop asking after a while,” she says. She also suggests laying it all out. Have a family meeting, particularly on no-school days, to discuss how time will be spent. “Get the input from the kids. Coming to an agreement on some of the activities will create buy-in and result in better cooperation.”
PEP often teaches how to do “Special Time” — something especially necessary to perk up the dark days of winter. It’s one-on-one time between one child and one parent, where the child chooses how to spend the time. Even 10 minutes is enough time to make a difference in the day.
The important thing is that the parent doesn’t take phone calls, check e-mail or get otherwise distracted during that time. A short amount of focused time will “reduce all the attention-getting behaviors — whining, complaining, tattling, interrupting — because the child feels she or he gets a good dose of the parent’s attention,” she says.
Kids really do suffer from seasonal affective disorder, says Adelle Cadieux, a psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich. The disorder is a depressive episode in fall and winter that gets better in spring and summer.
The symptoms are the same as depression. In children, that includes irritability, defiance and behavioral issues. They will have more trouble doing things they normally do without a problem, such as homework, and they may withdraw from family and friends, as well as activities they typically enjoy. There will possibly also be changes in sleep and eating habits.
If parents see this on a regular basis, it’s time to reach out to a pediatrician, she says.
“For all kids as well as adults, the winter months can be much more challenging because by the time we get home, we don’t have much daylight left,” she says. “Look at ways to engage kids in activities despite that.”
That might mean getting them involved in a club or activity, indoor sports, or just making plans to see friends more often.
What does Cadieux do for her son to keep the regular winter blahs at bay?
Her 9-year-old loves to play outside, but it gets dark early. So she switches the outdoor lights on and they play hide-and-seek or come up with other games that incorporate the darkness. “It’s about being creative and figuring out what options you have.”
More from The Washington Post