Many people aren’t thrilled with the cold temperatures and icy conditions that winter can bring, but some actually suffer from a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder affects approximately 5% of American adults and up to 20% of adults may suffer from a milder form of the condition called the “winter blues.” But what about children?
Children also struggle with depression – data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that about 4.4% of children suffer from depression in general. But can have children seasonal depression? Experts say yes.
“Children can certainly experience seasonal depression symptoms,” said Thea Gallagher, clinical assistant professor of psychology at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the show Mind in sight Podcast, tells Yahoo Life. “There’s less socializing, less being out in the dark… these factors can have the same impact on children as they do on adults.”
Melissa Santos, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and department head of child psychology at the University of Connecticut Connecticut children, agrees. “Seasonal affective disorder is thought to be caused by how the brain responds to reduced sunlight,” she tells Yahoo Life. “It is believed that the reduced exposure to sunlight causes the brain to cause some imbalances in hormones, leading to depression.”
But what are the signs of seasonal affective disorder in children and how can you combat it for your child? This is what parents need to know:
What is seasonal affective disorder again?
Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that has a seasonal pattern, with symptoms usually lasting about four to five months of the year National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). While people can develop SAD in the summer months, it is most common in the winter months.
According to the NIMH, overall symptoms of SAD can include:
Being depressed most of the day, almost every day
Lose interest in activities you once enjoyed
Changes in appetite or weight occur
have problems with sleep
Feeling of sluggishness or restlessness
Have low energy
Feeling hopeless or worthless
have difficulty concentrating
Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Overeating and craving carbohydrates
The symptoms of SAD can vary in children
Children can experience any of the above SAD symptoms, but Gallagher says they tend to look a little different. This may include:
But here too the pattern is seasonal. “The thing about SAD is that it occurs at the same time every year and generally goes away when spring and increased sunlight return,” says Santos.
How to Deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder in Children
Treating seasonal affective disorder in children comes with certain challenges, including the fact that it is often dark by the time they get home from school or you finish work, making it difficult to be with them at the local park or on to help the playground work out.
If you suspect your child is suffering from SAD, Gallagher recommends asking your child about his or her feelings. “It’s always good to talk about it,” she says. However, Gallagher warns that you may need to have these conversations after a meltdown. “In moments when children are activated, it can be difficult for them to process how they are feeling and what is going on,” she says.
Santos suggests using yourself as an example and trying to normalize SAD and the winter blues. She recommends saying something like, “You know, Mom notices that as the days get shorter, it’s really hard to go outside and be active because it’s so cold and dark. What did you notice different about yourself?”
As with all illnesses, SAD also has a range. It’s a good idea to connect them with a healthcare provider or mental health expert who can properly diagnose and treat them, says Gallagher. Treatment may include having your child do their homework or reading next to a special light box to help them get higher levels of vitamin D, or even antidepressants if you and a doctor determine this is necessary .
Once you’ve gotten your child talking about their feelings and connecting them with a health care provider, Gallagher suggests doing your best to manage and monitor the things in their life that you can control. “Provide a certain level of stability and routine, such as a regular sleep schedule and frequent outside time,” she advises. “It’s important to give them the care and attention they need.”
This article was originally published and updated on January 9, 2023.