Why is December so hard for students with executive function challenges?

This time of year can be particularly challenging for young people with executive function challenges and their parents/carers.

Low mood, coupled with academic pressure from school and general exhaustion can lead to heightened tensions at home and an emotional downward spiral. Hear from Connections in Mind Coaching’s Managing Director Victoria Bagnall about the science behind the December Blues, why they affect students with Executive Function (EF) challenges more than most and what we can do to help.
What are the December blues?

If you talk to any mental health professional in the Northern Hemisphere, they will tell you that the run up to Christmas is their busiest time of year. Many people experience low mood during this time of year. This low mood is thought to be linked to the impaired functioning of the hypothalamus – which can:
* Increase the production of melatonin – this is the hormone that makes you feel sleepy.
* Lower the production of serotonin – this is the hormone that promotes mood, appetite and sleep.
* Affect the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) – the body uses sunlight to time various functions (e.g. when to wake up) .

Why do the December blues affect students with executive function challenges more than others?

We have to remember that school life is particularly demanding for students with executive function challenges. They have been working hard all term to keep up with their peers and by the end of a long term they can be physically and mentally exhausted. We know that executive functions are impaired when we are tired and there the vicious cycle continues.

What is more, due to issues with emotional control and response inhibition, they might find it more difficult than others to regulate their emotions. Whilst others may find it easier to maintain a strong exterior despite feelings of low mood, often students with executive function challenges wear their heart on their sleeve so to speak and struggle to mask how they are feeling.

Indeed, this will be compounded by the fact that their challenges with metacognition (self awareness) result in them feeling more emotional, but not actually be aware of why, or even the impact this is having on their lives and those around them. They can seem like they are absorbed in themselves and not thinking about anyone else.
What can we do to help?
1. Normalise the December blues and share any feelings of low mood as a family to encourage young people to talk about how they are feeling.
2. Recognise and praise that they have been working hard all term, and empathise with them about how hard it is.
3. Encourage good rest and allow them to drop non-compulsory extra curricular activities if they are showing signs of exhaustion.
4. Encourage them to spend time outside in the fresh air and winter sun.
5. Encourage a healthy lifestyle including regular exercise and healthy eating.
6. Avoid energy drinks – see government/ Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health report on the link between energy drinks and poor executive functions in adolescents.
7. Plan fun activities that the young person will enjoy and look forward to.
8. This video can help summarise what we can do to help with the winter blues.
9. Seek help from trained mental health professionals if you have any concerns about the their emotional state i.e. depression or anxiety.
10. Contact Connections in Mind for more support.

Connections in Mind is a family of organisations that is committed to raising awareness of executive function skills and their impact on children’s development and relationships. We offer coaching, parenting courses, revision skills courses and training and support for schools.

Click Here to book in to speak to one of the team about our Coaching Services

Click Here for more information about our Parenting Courses.

Click Here for more information about our revision skills courses run through The Code.

Click Here to find out more about our Training and Schools offering.