Winter can be difficult for some families. Gray skies outside can leave us feeling a little down; the colder weather seems like it's never going to end. However, some children experience a more significant change to their mood than others with the change in seasons. Learn more about what causes seasonal depression in kids, warning signs and five ways to prevent it.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that most typically occurs in the late fall to late winter or early spring. A small number of children have seasonal disruptions in the spring and summer.

It is important to separate out problems at school, whether they are academic or social, from SAD. Children who perk up on weekends or holiday breaks but are unhappy during regular school weeks are more likely to have an issue at school than SAD. If problems appear to be linked to school, communicating with school staff to address these concerns is essential.

What Causes SAD?

We don’t know exactly what causes SAD, but there are some factors that we think may contribute to this disorder. Less sunlight during the winter can disrupt your child’s biological clock. This can lead to lowered levels of serotonin (a chemical associated with mood) and higher levels of melatonin (a chemical that regulates sleep patterns).

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of SAD?

Imagine what it would be like to hibernate, this is similar to SAD!

A child with SAD may:

  • Have a lack of energy.
  • Sleep more, but not feel rested.
  • Feel fatigued.
  • Overeat, and especially crave carbohydrates.

Additionally, the child might:

  • Lose interest in previously enjoyed activities.
  • Avoid friends.
  • Feel hopeless or worthless.
  • Have trouble concentrating.
  • Be irritable and throw temper tantrums.
  • Have thoughts of death or suicide.

What Are the Treatments for SAD?

First, ask your child about how they are feeling and comment on changes you have seen in their behavior. Let them know you are not criticizing, rather, you want to check in and support them if they are feeling sad or down. Help them to make a plan, if possible, to get outdoors into the sunlight on a daily basis, and to be physically active. If this is not enough to boost your child’s mood, consult your treatment provider. Light therapy can be effective; it requires a specialized lamp that the child sits under first thing in the morning and often, a second time in the mid- to late afternoon. Other treatments, including medication and psychotherapy, can also help to address SAD symptoms.

Five Ways to Prevent SAD

  1. Change your perspective: Instead of thinking of recreational activities as something you have to do to be healthy, think of it as a reward for everyone in the family, and you’ll be more successful.
  2. Pick a time that works best for you: To help with consistency, set a time of day that works best for you, like before work or school, right after work or school, or after dinner.
  3. Take baby steps: Ideally, spending 30 minutes a day on leisure or recreational activities will give you the best outcome, but even 15 minutes a day can be beneficial. You can gradually work your way up to spending more time on individual or family activities. What matters most is that it’s something that’s fun, energizing and makes you happy.
  4. Mix it up: Don’t be afraid to be creative with the activities you choose to do. Finding ways to be active doesn’t have to be hard. Websites like FamilyCorner.com and Therapeutic Recreation boards on Pinterest have great indoor and outdoor leisure ideas for individuals and families. And YouTube and DVDs from the library can be a free and accessible way to exercise indoors. My personal favorite is to go for a walk with music, because it’s relaxing, a diversion, and an easy way to have fun!
  5. Make it a team effort: If you find yourself becoming unmotivated due to bad weather, find a friend, family member, or pet to join you.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

“It’s a problem when it’s a problem.” If your child’s symptoms are interfering with their schoolwork, friends, ability to enjoy life or getting along with family, schedule an appointment with their pediatrician – especially if symptoms continue for weeks and the activities that usually boost your child’s mood don’t work. In the meantime, spend quality time with your child – find time to listen and to enjoy activities together.