Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a serious condition that goes beyond the typical winter slump. Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and how to help your child feel better. 

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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that shows up in the fall and winter, which have the lowest amount of daylight. It lifts in the spring as sunlight returns. Parents often overlook symptoms of SAD or dismiss them as normal mood swings, but recognizing the signs can help your child get appropriate treatment Here's everything you need to know about Seasonal Affective Disorder in kids.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder? 

"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 regulates mood, and it decreases when there are fewer hours of daylight. Melatonin regulates sleep, and it increases when daylight wanes. These fluctuations have been associated with depression. 

SAD is more likely to affect children with 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.

Young Teen Girl Upset On Cell Phone Dim Light
Credit: Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock

Symptoms of Seasonal Depression in Kids

Aside from being sad or depressed, your child may act irritable, feel tired, have difficulty concentrating, experience changes in school performance, or notice decreased interest in things they usually enjoy. Their 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 shows a few of these symptoms, it doesn't necessarily mean they have 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.

Prevention Strategies for SAD 

There's no known way to avoid SAD, but practicing general healthy habits may help. Your child should spend time outside during daylight hours, exercise for at least an hour every day, get sufficient sleep, and eat healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, says Dr. Borenstein.

Staying connected with your child may be beneficial, too. Talk to them about their day and let them know they can come to you with feelings or problems. Tuning in to your child will also keep you alert to any changes in their behavior, so you can address them more quickly.

How to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder

Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of research about treating SAD in children. The same healthy habits that help prevent the disorder—spending time outside during daylight hours, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep and exercise—may treat very mild cases. Other kids may require medication like antidepressants. Psychotherapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) can also help them learn coping strategies.

Your doctor may suggest light therapy, which involves a device that mimics natural light. It can be performed in a medical facility, but most people use a small, portable box at home (some insurance companies will cover the cost of the light unit with a doctor's prescription), says Dr. Borenstein. For this treatment, your child would do their usual activities, like reading or playing with toys, while sitting near the box for a specific amount of time—usually 20 minutes. The light tricks the body into thinking it's receiving extra hours of daylight, thereby reducing SAD symptoms. Light therapy is less common in children because, although it's been successful in treating adults suffering from the disorder, there hasn't been much research on its effectiveness in kids.

With treatment, SAD symptoms can improve in as little as a few days, though some cases may take a few weeks, says Dr. Borenstein. However, the difference between SAD and other types of depression is that your child's mood should brighten as the sun starts to stick around longer in the spring and summer. Unfortunately, SAD tends to return during the following fall and winter seasons. But being proactive and making sure your child sticks with healthy habits may help lessen symptoms or even prevent it altogether.