Seasonal Affective Disorder in Kids
As the days grow shorter and leaves start to fall, some of us may start feeling the winter blues, sometimes known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. And while it is typically a condition that affects adults, there are instances when children struggle with it also. Supporting a child through SAD can be challenging, so let’s talk about some ways to understand and cope with this condition.
What is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a sub-type of depression that affects people during a particular season. Those affected usually start feeling it around the age of 18, but at times it can also be seen in older children and teens.
General symptoms of SAD are similar to symptoms of depression:
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Changes in appetite and/or sleep
- Low energy
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
- Oversleeping and overeating (winter)
- Social withdrawal/hibernating (winter)
- IInsomnia and poor appetite (summer)
- Restlessness, anxiety, violent urges (summer)
SAD is diagnosed more often in young women, but when a young man shows signs of SAD, the symptoms can be more severe. This can include a high amount of irritability, inability to sleep, anger, and sadness.
Depression or SAD?
Even though SAD is a type of depression, it is important to recognize the difference between the two. One of the main symptoms in children to look for, specifically, is moodiness that starts to become more and more prominent at the same time every year around late fall/early winter.
One main way that SAD differs from general depression is that its symptoms have an onset and then end at the same times every year. One of the reasons children, teens, and young adults have higher levels of irritability when showing signs of SAD is due to the change in the season affecting the child’s circadian rhythm, or the body’s internal clock. The change in the circadian rhythm causes changes (increase or decrease) with appetite and sleep schedule, which leads to the increase in moodiness. Some of the first symptoms you may recognize are the change in appetite and sleep patterns for your child.
Talking About SAD
If you do notice symptoms of SAD or depression in your child, start a gentle conversation with them to start the process of healing. Here are some child friendly ways to talk about SAD with your children:
Allow your child to be expressive with their thoughts and the feelings that may feel new to them. Try to create a safe and inviting space where they feel comfortable sharing what’s going on, in a neutral environment where they can be relaxed. This can include during a casual car ride, a trip out to lunch, or taking a walk together.
Talk about your observations.
Let your child know what changes you are noticing in them without passing judgement or doling out consequences for these noticed changes. For example, if your kiddo’s grades suddenly drop, avoid punishing them for it. Rather, acknowledge that you have noticed this change, and give them a chance to speak about it. Let your child know you support them and will help them through these feelings.
Help explain what they may not understand.
Explain that there are things that could be contributing to the symptoms they’re feeling, such as lack of outdoor sunlight, lack of exercise or movement, and the lack of outdoor socialization both in school/out of school. Then, ask them to be open and honest about how they perceive these changes, and what they think the cause is. This will help you work together towards a solution and be partners in their wellness.
Treatment and Support
Depression and SAD are very similar in the way they are treated, which includes cognitive behavioral therapy, behavioral activation, mindfulness, and at times medication management. One major difference is the exposure to lightbox therapy. SAD is brought on due to the lack of light and outside exposure once the colder seasons come. Lightbox therapy can be completed at home by using “natural light” bulbs and lamps within the home to simulate natural sunlight from the outdoors. (Be careful not to confuse sun lamps with UV lamps!) Additionally, another form of light exposure therapy that can be useful in treatment is a dawn stimulator. Dawn stimulators are typically light therapy combined with an alarm clock that will provide dawn-like light in the early morning hours to help support a healthy circadian rhythm.
Some of the best ways to help a child who is struggling through SAD is to assist your child in implementing a daily schedule. Some actions on this daily schedule can include:
- Implementing exercise throughout the day, preferably outside if possible.
- Encouraging journaling of thoughts and feelings daily to not only express self, but to find patterns.
- Balancing diet and sleep patterns to teach your child’s body healthy habits that should be consistent daily.
- Assisting your child in remaining social throughout the winter months, even if they are reporting not wanting to fully participate.
Being open with family and friends about your child’s struggles may also assist them in being able to be their true selves around others without the pressure of judgement on their behaviors. Most importantly, be patient and do not expect that your child’s symptoms will go away immediately with some changes and help. If you feel your child may be experiencing symptoms of SAD, please seek help and guidance from a mental health professional who will work to both guide you and your child. Read more about our services here or call 888-764-4161. We’re here to support!
About the Expert
Alexa Brown is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, practicing in CT, NY, NJ, MA and NV. She has a combined 10 years of experience as a medical social worker and psychotherapist. She has focuses in anxiety disorders, depression, school avoidance, phases of life changes, grief, loss and navigating next steps. Alexa approaches her therapy sessions eclectically using open communication, play and artistic outlets.