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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): Help Kids Beat the Winter Blues

by Carrie Spindel, PsyD

 Winter is a long season in many places, and the cold temperatures and shorter days result in lots of time spent indoors. While people react to the winter months in many different ways, approximately 6% of the population suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that follows a predictable course with symptoms emerging in the fall and remitting as springtime arrives. While SAD is more common among adults, preliminary research suggests that children and adolescents can suffer from this disorder as well.

Like major depression, SAD ranges from mild to moderate or severe episodes, and can consist of many different symptoms. While exact symptom presentation in children is largely un-researched at this time, professionals suspect that symptoms of child and adolescent SAD are consistent with traditional symptoms of depression. Any of these symptoms, some of which are listed below, may impact a child's self-esteem, interfere with extracurricular activities, and impair social and academic functioning. Symptoms of SAD
include:

  • Changes in mood, such as irritability and sadness
  • Increased crying
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Increased sleep and difficulty waking in the morning
  • Changs in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawal from typically enjoyable activities

There are several theories about the causes of SAD, though few focus specifically on children and adolescents. In the general research, many theories connect SAD to environmental factors, such as varying exposure to light, which causes subsequent changes in the brain. As a result, there is lots of preliminary support for treating SAD with phototherapy (exposure to bright lights). Research has also shown that the prevalence of SAD varies by geographical region, with individuals who live in more northern latitudes experiencing SAD at higher rates. Additionally, levels of serotonin — a neurotransmitter linked to major depression and other mood disorders — has been shown to change during different seasons and may correlate with SAD.

If you notice marked changes in your child's mood during the winter months, consider the following points to determine if your child is experiencing SAD:

  • SAD is Marked by distinct changes in mood lasting for multiple weeks and correlating with a change in seasons.
  • SAD is marked by other changes in behavior related to school, attitude, appetite, sleeping patterns, and social functioning. Keep in mind that SAD consists of a number of symptoms at once, and is not related to a particular situational stressor.

Consult a pediatrician, psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed therapist if you suspect that your child is suffering from SAD. These professionals will assess the changes you’ve observed and provide guidance about how to approach the situation. If he/she believes treatment is indicated for your child, review the variety of evidence-based treatments available for depression. Also remember to approach your child about your concerns in an open and supportive manner, and make sure to listen and provide reassurance that he/she will not be judged.

In milder cases where your child’s seasonal mood shifts are due to a non-disorder-level case of the winter blues or cabin fever, enlist the following suggestions to help ease winter’s wrath:

  • Exercise! Exercise increases the amount of serotonin in the brain and helps to improve mood. Though you may not be able to get outside during the coldest months, pick a fun exercise video, challenge the family to a Wii Sports tournament, or throw a dance party in the living room!
  • After getting active, designate time for rest and relaxation. Listen to calming music, read a good book, or practice meditative breathing or visualization.
  • Create a list of fun things your family can do together, such as playing board games, doing arts-and-crafts projects, or baking. Engaging in fun activities like these has been proven to elevate mood.
  • Fun activities can be enjoyable by ourselves, but are often even more pleasurable when done with other people. Plan a lunch or dinner party with your neighbors or your children's friends. 
  • Being productive and accomplishing goals can also elevate our mood. Take advantage of having to stay indoors by tackling chores or projects you don’t usually have time for.
  • Get out of the house whenever you can. Bundle up and take a brisk walk around the block to get some fresh air and a little sunlight. Alternatively, going to a movie, the library, or a museum are great ways to get out of the house for a few hours.