Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) isn’t limited to adults.
The winter blues are common among people of all ages. They can be caused by something specific, such as holiday-related stress or a return to school or work once the holidays are over. Typically, these cases are mild and go away quickly.
SAD, however, is a more serious condition.
“Seasonal affective disorder is a specific type of depression that tends to show up during the fall and winter months,” says Catherine Hutter, PhD, pediatric psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “It’s similar to other kinds of depression that children and teens experience.”
Parents might expect sadness to be the most recognizable symptom of SAD, but the truth is that all forms of childhood depression can be expressed in multiple ways.
“More often, children with depression are irritable and prickly,” Hutter says. “They have difficulty managing their emotions and concentrating, and these symptoms can affect their performance at school.”
Children who are depressed may also lose interest in hobbies and activities they normally enjoy. They may become withdrawn, sleep more and experience changes in eating habits. If you notice one or more of these symptoms, it might be time to take action.
“Try to tune in with your children and talk to them about what’s going on,” Hutter says. “Make sure they’re on a regular sleep cycle and getting enough exercise, both of which can help with their mental and physical health.”
Ask for Help
Though symptoms of SAD typically end with the arrival of spring, the disorder can cause lasting issues. Declining school grades and damaged relationships with friends can follow children through the rest of the year or, in some cases, the rest of their lives.
“If children are having more hard days than not over a period of a few weeks, it’s time to address the issue with a pediatrician,” Hutter says. “Parents can also talk to teachers to see if they’ll allow extended deadlines or homework accommodations for their children on a temporary basis.”
Pediatricians can determine if your child has SAD or another depressive disorder. Depending on your child’s needs, a pediatrician may recommend therapy, prescribe medication or both. Even if your child’s symptoms go away during the spring, it might be worth the extra help to get her through the winter.
“We don’t want any child to struggle with mental health,” Hutter says. “Long-term, downward moods are never normal in children, and identifying the symptoms early makes treatment better and more efficient.”