Does Your Child Have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a serious condition that can mean more than the usual winter slump for your kid. Learn what it is, how to spot the symptoms, and what you can do to help your child cheer up.

What is SAD?

upset child

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that tends to show up in the fall and winter when there are fewer hours of daylight, then lifts in the spring as sunlight returns. "We don't know the exact cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but it probably has something to do with the neurochemicals melatonin and serotonin," says Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., acting president and CEO at the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in Great Neck, New York. Serotonin, which regulates mood, decreases when there are fewer hours of daylight, and melatonin, responsible for regulating sleep, increases, and these fluctuations can be associated with depression. SAD is more likely to affect people who have a family history of depression, as well as those who live at high altitudes because seasonal changes in those areas are more extreme, adds Dr. Borenstein.

Symptoms and Signs

It's sometimes easy for parents to overlook symptoms of SAD, or dismiss them as normal mood swings. Aside from feeling sad or depressed, your child may be irritable, feel tired, have difficulty concentrating, experience changes in school performance, or have decreased interest in things he usually enjoys. Your child's eating habits may also be affected: Some people with SAD have changes in their appetite or crave carbohydrates, says Cathryn Galanter, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist and visiting associate professor of psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Medical Center and King's County Hospital Center, both in Brooklyn, New York. But even if your child is showing a few of these symptoms, it doesn't necessarily mean he has SAD. "It's not uncommon for people to want to stay in during the winter or to feel more tired," points out Dr. Galanter. The timeframe and severity of symptoms are the biggest telltale signs that your kid is experiencing more than the normal winter blahs. If symptoms persist for two weeks, or they're so severe your child is having difficulty functioning, contact your pediatrician or a licensed mental health professional who has expertise working with children.

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