SAD: Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder

By: Nancy Cunningham, PsyD
As seen on Nationwide Children's Hospital's 700 Childrens® Blog

At this time of the year, it feels like winter will drag on forever and spring will never get here. The gray skies outside can give us a case of the winter blues and make us feel sluggish or sad. However, your child’s seasonal slump may be a more serious problem.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of major depression that's related to changes in seasons. It typically starts in the fall and continues into the winter months. A small number of children have seasonal disruptions in the spring and summer.

What Causes SAD?

We don’t know exactly what causes SAD, but there are some factors that we think may contribute to this disorder. The lack of sunlight during the winter can disrupt your child’s biological clock and reduce levels of serotonin (a chemical associated with mood) and melatonin (a chemical which regulates sleep patterns and mood). Symptoms tend to get worse later in the season.

Child with seasonal affective disorder staring out a window

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of SAD?

A child with SAD may:

  • Have a lack of energy and changes in sleep, including too much or too little sleep
  • Lose interest in activities he/she once enjoyed
  • Avoid friends
  • Have changes in appetite, particularly overeating
  • Feel hopeless or worthless
  • Be irritable and throw temper tantrums
  • Have thoughts of death or suicide

What Are the Treatments for SAD?

It’s first important to talk to your child in a gentle and supportive manner about the way they are feeling and any changes you have seen in their behavior. If you think treatment is needed, there are several ways to help a child. Light therapy can be effective, and other treatments including medication and psychotherapy can also help with the issues common in SAD. Your treatment providers will help you determine what approach is best for your child.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

It can be hard to diagnose the difference between the winter blues and SAD. Problems with concentration, schoolwork, energy, and mood are often signs of SAD in young people. If your child’s symptoms are disrupting their life, they should see their pediatrician — especially if symptoms continue for days and the activities that usually boosted his or her mood don’t work. In the meantime, spend quality time with your child and provide the extra supports that may be needed to help manage the demands of their daily life.

Featured Expert

Nancy Cunningham, PsyD  
Behavioral Health

Dr. Nancy Cunningham is a psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital who has provided child and adolescent clinical services and overseen program development in their behavioral health department.

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