You might be surprised to learn that seasonal affective disorder (SAD) doesn’t affect just adults. It affects kids and teens, too.
SAD is more than a case of the winter blues. It’s a seasonal form of clinical depression.
According to author and SAD specialist Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., in his book Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD affects about 3 percent of kids ages 9 to 17.
Below you’ll learn what SAD looks like in kids and teens along with how parents can help.
SAD Signs in Kids & Teens
“The single biggest clue that your child may be suffering from SAD is that he or she develops problems during the fall and winter of each year,” writes Dr. Rosenthal. This seasonal shift may be more important than the actual symptoms, he says. That’s because the signs that we see in adults don’t necessarily show up in kids. So symptoms may be atypical and hard to spot.
It’s also tough to parcel out SAD symptoms from normal childhood or teen behaviors. For instance, teens notoriously have inconsistent sleeping and eating habits. Instead, he suggests focusing on “problems with concentration, schoolwork, energy and mood.”
According to Rosenthal, common signs in kids and teens are:
- Feeling exhausted and irritable.
- Throwing temper tantrums.
- Having a harder time concentrating and completing homework. Your child’s grades might suffer or it might take more effort to achieve the same grades.
- Not wanting to do chores they didn’t have issues with before.
- Experiencing physical aliments, such as headaches or stomach pain.
- Craving junk foods more than usual.
ADHD and SAD
ADHD can resemble SAD, Rosenthal notes in his book. But of course SAD has the seasonal component to it and surfaces in the fall and winter. Interestingly, he’s seen many kids who actually have both disorders—and might also struggle with a sleep disorder called delayed sleep phase syndrome or DSPS. This occurs when individuals are unable to fall asleep and wake up at regular hours. Light therapy, which is effective for adults with SAD, also helps kids with SAD and DSPS.
How Parents Can Help
There are many ways that parents can help their kids manage SAD symptoms. In Winter Blues, Rosenthal suggests the following:
- See a professional therapist or psychiatrist. First, it’s key to get a proper diagnosis for your child. Also, a mental health professional can offer valuable treatment suggestions.
- Expose your child to artificial and natural light. You can buy a light box for your child. Adults usually need at least 30 minutes of treatment with a light box. (A light box with 2,500 lux will require about two hours.) In Rosenthal’s experience, kids need shorter sessions such as 10 to 15 minutes. Also, he cautions that parents need to buy light boxes with very little UV light. He says that “…the lens of a child’s eye does less to filter out these potentially harmful wavelengths than the lens of an adult.” He also suggests kids go outside for at least 30 minutes every day to enjoy natural light.
- Help your child wake up in the mornings. It’s much easier for your child to wake up if they have a bright light to help them. Rosenthal suggests getting your child a bright bedside lamp that has a timer. This way they awake every morning to bright light.
- Review your child’s schedule. Because SAD affects a child’s ability to concentrate and perform, you might have them skip more demanding extracurricular activities in the fall and winter. However, Rosenthal says that keeping physical activities is a good idea. Because these activities involve both aerobic activity and time outside, they can help to reduce SAD symptoms.
- Help your child manage stress. For instance, since school demands can be stressful, help your child with anticipating projects and tests way ahead of time, so they have plenty of time to prepare and study.