ADuring the fall and winter, many families look forward to participating in holiday activities and traditions. But for some, the move into the colder months can bring mixed feelings and a period of anxiety and depression, making it difficult for many to enjoy this time of year. Experiencing seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can affect anyone, even our children and teens. This type of reaction occurs when someone becomes depressed or when feelings of depression increase only during a particular time of year, typically fall or winter. Recognizing if you or a loved one has SAD is so important to being able to ask for help or comfort those around you.
signs and symptoms
As with other mood disorders, it’s important to be aware of when you or your children are suffering from seasonal depression. A person with SAD may exhibit some or all of these characteristics:
People with SAD may experience sad, depressed, or irritable emotions. SAD can make people feel hopeless, discouraged, or worthless. When your child feels this way, they may cry, get upset more easily, or spend more time away from the family.
A person may become more self-critical or more sensitive to criticism. They may complain, blame, find fault, or see problems more often than usual.
lack of joy
People with SAD can lose interest in things they usually enjoy doing. You may lose interest in friends and stop participating in social activities.
People may feel tired, lack energy, or have no motivation to do things. To them, everything can seem like it takes too much effort.
changes in sleep
A person can sleep much more than usual. They may find it particularly difficult to get up early in the morning and get ready for school or work.
changes in eating
Along with the tendency to overeat, cravings for comfort and sugary foods can often occur. Because of this change in diet, SAD can lead to weight gain during the winter.
Like any depression, SAD can make it difficult to focus. This can affect schoolwork and grades.
how to help
If you feel your child or teen is suffering from seasonal depression and want to try to battle it at home, here are some ways you can help:
Exposure to sunlight or light therapy
For many children and teens, spending more time outside during the day is enough to relieve seasonal depression. Outdoor exercise or a daily walk are ways to do this. Full-spectrum (daylight) bulbs that fit in regular lamps can help bring more light into the winter months and may help with mild symptoms. More difficult symptoms can be treated with a stronger light that simulates daylight. A special lightbox or board is placed on a tabletop or desk. The person sits close to it each day (about 45 minutes, usually in the morning) with their eyes open and occasionally staring at the light—not staring. Symptoms usually improve within a few days or weeks. Even after they feel better, people who use a light therapy box for SAD continue to use it until enough sunlight is available outdoors. Like any medical treatment, light therapy should only be used after consulting a doctor.
Talking to a therapist helps ease the negative thoughts and feelings of depression. It can alleviate the isolation or loneliness that children and teens often feel with depression. It can help them understand their condition and learn how to prevent future seasonal depression.
Doctors may prescribe medication for some children and adolescents with SAD. Antidepressants help balance serotonin and other neurotransmitters that affect mood and energy.
Help your child understand
Learn more about the disorder and provide simple explanations. Remember that staying focused can be difficult, so your child is unlikely to want to read or learn much about SAD – if so, just review the key points.
Be their biggest supporter
Encourage your child to be physically active and spend time outdoors. Take a daily walk or visit a local community center if your area is too cold.
find quality time
Spend extra time with your child – nothing fancy, just something low-key that doesn’t require a lot of energy. Their company and care are essential, providing personal contact and a sense of connection.
Don’t expect symptoms to subside immediately. Remember that low motivation, low energy, and low mood are part of SAD.
Establish a sleep routine
Encourage your child to stick to a regular bedtime every day to reap the psychological benefits of daylight.
Remember, if you ever need additional help or resources, you can always visit the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) website for resources such as the Family Field Guide, Own Your Power OK, and the 988 Find Mental Health Lifeline. If you or a family member are experiencing a mental health crisis and need immediate help, you can always call or text 988.