I notice my children acting out more this fall. Are children susceptible to seasonal depression? As the days get shorter and grayer, what are some strategies for protecting the health of my family?
This is a very timely question for the season as we recently passed the winter solstice. This time of year, parents can see behaviors in their children that you describe. Interestingly, like adults, children can be affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Though SAD is researched mostly with adults, SAD is also diagnosed in children. Symptoms mirror depressive symptoms in many ways and can include decreased energy, increased moodiness, oversleeping, changes in appetite or weight, difficulty concentrating and feelings of depression or sadness most of the day, nearly every day. Unique about SAD is the symptoms are linked to the hours of sunlight in the day/season. It makes sense considering evidence that finds the frequency of SAD increases the farther one lives from the equator.
To diagnose SAD, as opposed to clinical depression, symptoms must be experienced on a seasonal cycle for more than one year. In children, SAD can also look like problems focusing in school and reduced interest in friends and extracurricular activities they usually enjoy. There is also some evidence suggesting that SAD is more common in families with a history of depression and among females.
While there is no guaranteed strategy for preventing SAD, there are several actions you can take to lessen the impact of symptoms. Maintaining a strong connection with your child – help them feel connected to family and friends. Over the holidays, help be sure extended family avoid shaming them for an appearance of laziness or willful avoidance.
Isolation is common for those experiencing any kind of depression so check-in often. Always ask directly about suicide if you have any suspicion and call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline with any concerns at 800-273-8255.
Some ideas for prevention include getting your child to spend time outside, an hour a day is recommended. A growing body of research indicates that children who play outside are more attentive, happier, and less anxious than children who spend more time indoors.
Help them maintain a healthy diet, get enough sleep and exercise regularly. As much as possible, keep sleep/awake hours consistent, getting them up at the same time each day and enforcing a reasonable bedtime.
Two other types of therapy have been effective for treating adults with SAD — light therapy and medications. Light therapy involves exposure to full spectrum light (different from a usual light bulb) for about 20 minutes a day. Evidence suggests that a light box can be effective for a large portion of SAD sufferers by decreasing melatonin levels and increasing the release of serotonin. For more severe cases of SAD, consult your physician, and be prepared to discuss the use of an anti-depressant.
If you observe SAD symptoms in your children, or if their current behavior make it difficult for them to maintain normal social, academic and community activities, I suggest speaking with your family doctor or a mental health counselor. A trained professional can help find solutions as well as assess for any underlying mental health or medical issues.
Our best to your family at this time of year.
Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you have a question you would like to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email firstname.lastname@example.org.