As autumn arrives and the days begin to grow shorter, some children experience changes in their moods. They start to feel sad, depressed, and lethargic as the daylight fades, and these feelings grow deeper and more persistent as they spend more of their waking hours in the darkness of the winter months.
When spring arrives, they feel relief and tend to return to their natural mood and energy level.
This may be a condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Read on if you feel a child you know may have SAD.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is a form of depression, but it only occurs at certain times of the year.
SAD is unusual in that one risk factor is a person’s geographic location! The farther away from the equator one lives, the more drastic SAD symptoms may be.
SAD occurs during the fall and winter. While the exact mechanism of SAD is not fully understood, psychologists understand that these factors may affect a person’s mood:
- Lower serotonin levels in the brain. The lack of sunlight can reduce the amount of serotonin, a chemical that raises a person’s feeling of well-being.
- Higher melatonin levels in the brain. At the same time, a lack of sunlight increases melatonin levels, which makes a person feel tired and sluggish.
- Changes in the body’s circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms make up the “master clock” that activates your child’s sense of alertness and sleepiness. Changes in this rhythm can alter hormones, digestion, and sleep.
- Low vitamin D levels. The body needs sunlight to produce vitamin D, and lack of this vitamin can cause bone and muscle aches.
Signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder
The symptoms children express as a result of SAD will resemble other kinds of depression. Here are some signs to look for:
- Mood swings: If your child cries easily during the long dark months of winter, becomes irritable or loses hope easily, they may be showing signs of SAD.
- Lack of energy: In the winter months, people with SAD may lose energy and get tired easily. Even activities they normally enjoy begin to seem too strenuous.
- Negative self-talk: Kids with SAD may express negative views of themselves or notions that they are to blame for something.
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns: Kids may have difficulty waking up for school in the morning, and they may swap their normal eating habits for snacks or sugary foods. This can affect their health and weight.
- Loss of enjoyment: The psychological term anhedonia is the state in which people are unable to feel pleasure, and is a defining condition of depression. People with SAD may stop engaging in activities that normally make them happy, such as seeing friends or engaging in hobbies.
How You Can Help
We know you want to be there for your children, and you can often feel helpless in a case such as this. But you’re never helpless! Here are some ways to help.
- Talk to your child. This is so important! Your child needs to know that they can talk to you about whatever is on their mind and can share their feelings without judgment.
- Create a structured sleep routine. Young people can get disoriented as their circadian rhythms become unfocused, so enforce steady bedtimes and make sure they take advantage of every hour of sunshine during the day.
- Bring in the sunshine! It may be a challenge to access sunlight where you are, but spending as much time in natural light as possible may help regulate your child’s emotions. You could also invest in a lightbox to help the body get more light or switch to lightbulbs that attempt to replicate the sun’s light.
- Exercise the anxiety away. Exercise can kick-start your mood and increase energy levels, which combats low serotonin levels. Exercising outdoors, if possible, is even better!
At Advanced Behavioral Health, we understand the toll that dark Maryland winters can take on children with SAD.
If your child shows these symptoms, schedule a consultation with a member of our team. Our professional therapists are skilled at getting to know children and diagnosing concerns through therapy.
You can call us at 301-345-1022 or visit our website to learn more. One of our team members will help you find the care you need.