Seasonal Affective Disorder Hits Kids, Too (and How to Tell If Your Child Is Struggling)

Seasonal Affective Disorder Hits Kids, Too (and How to Tell If Your Child Is Struggling)
Photo: mooremedia, Shutterstock

The arrival of winter in the US, that darkest of seasons, often brings with it increased feelings of sadness, stress, and worry. And this winter will certainly give parents and kids plenty to feel stressed, sad, and worried about — it’s our second under the cloud of an out-of-control pandemic, back-to-school routines are once again being disrupted by fights over masks and classroom quarantines, and the youth vaccine is still just a glint on the horizon.

Although a certain amount of stress and worry is to be expected, this time of year it is especially important for parents keep a sharp eye on our children’s mental health. Some of their mood changes are usual this time of year, but if they are particularly severe, they may be a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression associated with the changing seasons. While this is usually talked about as an adult problem, kids can feel the effects of SAD too, which means it’s up to you to be proactive about getting them the help they need.

Most people with SAD begin to experience its effects in the fall, and continue to struggle with them throughout the winter, with symptoms worsening as time progresses. Then, as the seasons start changing again, SAD will often start to resolve on its own — but that’s a long time to feel unrelentingly blue, especially for a kid.

How do you know if you’re dealing with SAD or just the regular kind of sad? “The biggest difference comes down to length of symptoms and time of year, as seasonal affective disorder is tied to the environment,” said Alison LaSov, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the CEO of Advekit.

How to spot signs of SAD in children

Although we typically think of SAD as being restricted to adults, children can get it too. For a formal diagnosis of SAD, as opposed to general depression, symptoms must be observed for at least two years, maintaining a predictable seasonal cycle.

In addition to the seasonal component, symptoms of SAD include:

  • Feeling sad or irritable, even if there is no clear reason for why
  • Changes in appetite, whether that means eating more or less than usual
  • Changes in sleeping patterns, whether sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Engaging in self-criticism

These symptoms are similar to those observed in adults, with the main difference being that although many adults have learned how to identify and cope with depression, many kids still haven’t, and might not be aware there could be a reason behind how they are feeling. “Kids might feel frustrated they are having these feelings,” LaSov said, which might also extend to feeling guilt or shame about their emotions.

In many cases, parents are the ones who first pick up on signs of depression; children may not be able to articulate their own emotional experiences, and might not even be conscious that something is wrong. As LaSov notes, this is why it’s important for parents to have regular emotional checkins with their children to help keep track of how they are doing and ask them if they need help.

These checkins should include asking lots of questions, listening without judgment, as well as not dismissing a child’s concerns as trivial. “Be curious and stay supportive,” LaSov said. “It’s a really hard time for everyone.”

Treatments include talk therapy, light therapy, and medication

Treatments for SAD in kids are similar to other forms of depression. They can include talk therapy, which for kids can be especially beneficial, as they are still working on being able to identify and cope with their emotions. If symptoms are severe enough, their doctor may also recommend medication.

The main difference in treating SAD versus other types of depression, according to LaSov, is that healthcare practitioners may also recommend light therapy, for which you would get a lightbox that mimics outdoor light. Daily exposure to light therapy can help relieve some of the symptoms of SAD in kids and adults alike. Your child’s doctor would most likely recommend a specific brand, as well as help advise on optimal timing and duration of light therapy.

Most of all, parents should be be proactive about getting their kids the help they need, which also includes educating your child on any diagnosis or treatment they may be receiving. “A diagnosis can be scary,” LaSov said. Talk them through it, and you’ll get through the winter together.

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