Seasonal Affective Disorder: Help Kids Beat the Winter Blues

Winter can be a long season. The cold temperatures and shorter days can mean spending more time indoors. While people react to the winter months in many ways, approximately 6 percent of the population suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is a form of depression that follows a predictable course. Symptoms emerge in the fall and decline in the spring. While SAD is more common among adults, preliminary research suggests that children and adolescents can suffer too.

Like depression, SAD ranges from mild to moderate or severe episodes. While exact symptoms in children are largely un-researched at this time, professionals suspect that symptoms of child and adolescent SAD are consistent with symptoms of depression. Any of these 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
  • Changes in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawal from typically enjoyable activities

If you notice marked changes in your child's mood during the winter months, consider the following points:

  • SAD is marked by distinct changes in mood lasting for multiple weeks and correlates 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.

Link to environmental factors

There are several theories about the causes of SAD though few focus specifically on children and adolescents. Many theories connect SAD to environmental factors, in particular varying exposure to light, which causes subsequent changes in the brain. There is preliminary support for treating SAD with phototherapy, which is exposure to bright lights.

Research has also shown that the prevalence of SAD varies by geographical region. People who live in northern regions experience SAD at higher rates. Additionally, levels of serotonin — a neurotransmitter linked to major depression and other mood disorders — has been shown to change with the seasons and may correlate with SAD.

Shaking off the winter blues

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, consider the following suggestions to help ease winter’s wrath:

  • Exercise increases the amount of serotonin in the brain and helps to improve mood. Though you may not be able to get outside on the coldest days, pick a fun exercise video, challenge the family to a Wii Sports tournament, or throw a dance party in the living room!
  • Get out of the house whenever possible. Bundle up and take a brisk walk to get some fresh air and a little sunlight.
  • Engage in fun activities like playing board games, doing arts-and-crafts projects, or baking 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.
  • Rest and relax. Listen to calming music, read a good book, or practice meditative breathing or visualization.

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. 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.