Parents are surprised to learn that their children are bored a few days after Christmas. Some parents spend many hours and a lot of money and emotional energy to ensure their children have an epic Christmas. The discovery that children are not satisfied after all of the parents' efforts is frustrating. There may be three syndromes that may explain the after Christmas blues for children: a sharp reduction in dopamine levels, boredom, and the effects of overindulgence.
The Christmas season is exciting with all of the visual, tactile, and auditory stimulation. Houses adorned in bright lights, streets lit up, and storefronts decorated all bring pleasure to our senses. Christmas music is played in stores and on the radio, new gifts are being added under the tree for the vigilant child to shake to determine its contents. This year, kids didn't have to wait until Christmas morning for a visit from Santa Claus because the essential superheroes, dressed like UPS, Mail Carriers, and Amazon associates, always rang our doorbells to alert us that another package had arrived. However, like all seasons, Christmas came, and then it left. People removed their Christmas lights; the gifts unwrapped, the Christmas trees went out to the curbside, naked and without its beautiful adornment. For some kids, the end of the Christmas season sometimes results in feelings of dysthymia for kids and even adults.
Children may inevitably experience an emotional let-down after experiencing prolonged feelings of excitement. The Christmas season offers an emotional intoxication similar to the brain's response to a narcotic. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that carry signals from one neuron to another, providing mood messages. Dopamine is a popular neurotransmitter that is associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure. During the Christmas season, children get many pleasurable stimuli, so they secrete much dopamine in their brains. The constant dopamine release makes kids feel similar to if they were to eat candy all day long. But then the season ends, and their brains go back to the baseline levels of dopamine. This normal may feel like boredom because they are not getting the high dopamine levels that came with Christmas's good cheer.
When kids get bored after Christmas, parents may feel the mood reduction simultaneously. They also miss the excitement of the holiday season. However, parents have had a lot of experience with the changing seasons, so they overcompensate in one way or another. Eastwood et al. (2012) defined boredom as an aversive experience of wanting, but unable, to engage in satisfying activity. Parents naturally will direct the child to play with their new toys. The parents respond incredulously when the kid replies, "I already have, and now I am bored."
Washington State University, Assistant Professor Sammy Perone's research normalizes boredom. He found that everyone is prone to boredom, and some people have a trait that will quickly result in boredom. Perone writes that boredom is not the problem; it is more important to teach children how to manage boredom. Steinberger et al. (2016) agree that boredom can be useful and lead to creativity. Parents must redirect the child's boredom and suggest that they find something new to do. Redirection does not mean a new toy; instead, it may mean finding a new adventure with an old toy or new ways of doing old things. Steinberger states that boredom has led to new skills that people did not know they had. He did caution that parents must address boredom because, in some studies, boredom has led to what he refers to as mindless eating, which could lead to childhood obesity.
The final cause for after Christmas blues ties together the first two. However, it requires a courageous conversation with some parents. We now know that kids are prone to pleasure overdose because of high dopamine levels, and as a result, they may get bored if not stimulated continuously by new and exciting things. However, too much can lead to adult character flaws due to childhood overindulgence. According to Clarke, Dawson, and Bredehoft's (2014) book entitled, "How much is too much: Raising likable, responsible, respectful children,” some kids suffer from overindulgence when they get too much too soon and for too long. Excess is equivalent to over-stimulation and high dopamine levels. Overindulging a child may be exposing children to experiences that they are not mature enough to handle. It is the process of giving things to children to meet the adult's needs, not the child. Bredehoft (2018) warns us that overindulgence may lead to many negative character traits such as a need for immediate gratification, a sense of entitlement, materialism, poor boundaries, and no self-control and irresponsibility, to name just a few.
Bredehoft, D. (2018). What is childhood overindulgence? Psychology Today.
Clark, J., Ph.D., Dawson, C., Ph.D, & Bredehoft, D., Ph.D. (2014). How much is too much: Raising likable, responsible, and respectful children. Marlowe and Company
Eastwood et al., (2012). “The Unengaged Mind” Perspectives on Psychological Science,
Mandal, A. (2019). Dopamine functions: https://www.news-medical.net/health/Dopamine-Functions.aspx#:~:text=It%20is%20released%20during%20pleasurable,nucleus%20accumbens%20and%20prefrontal%20cortex.
Perone, S. (2019). Looking at how the brain reacts to boredom could help. Science Daily
Steinberger et al., (2016). The antecedents, experience, and coping strategies of Boredom in Young Adult Males. Journal of Safety Research.
• Lisa Hill, Ph.D., is an associate professor in criminal justice at California State University, East Bay and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She also worked for county and federal probation departments for three decades and wrote a book based on that experience. She and her husband live in Tracy and have four children. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.