The days are growing shorter and darker and no matter how much the fall foliage may spark joy, the lack of sun can be hard to manage—whether you’re an adult or a child.
According to Mental Health America, every year, 5% of the U.S. population struggles with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. This seasonal depression is characterized by when it starts and when it ends and how it typically aligns with the seasons of the year (for most people, SAD takes place in fall and winter, but for some, it’s spring and summer). While conversations around SAD are typically geared toward adults, children—from toddlers to teens—can also struggle with seasonal depression.
Family physician, Dr. Beth Oller, shares how seasonal depression can impact the chemicals in our brains, no matter someone’s age:
“Daylight affects two chemicals in the brain, melatonin and serotonin. Higher levels of melatonin make us feel sleepy. Serotonin is linked to energy and mood, and the brain makes more of it when someone is exposed to sunlight. Higher serotonin leads to increased feelings of happiness, and low levels can lead to depression. Shorter days and more darkness in fall/winter can cause higher melatonin and lower serotonin, which can lead to biological conditions that make depression more likely.”
Can children get seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder impacts everyone, young or old, differently. According to Mental Health America, while a SAD diagnosis usually sets in during the early 20s, in some cases it can take effect earlier in childhood or during the teen years.
Noticing a child’s mood shifts during the darker season can be helpful in tracking whether SAD or general mental health challenges may be present.
“The first thing noted is a change in mood, and feelings of sadness, depression or irritability. Irritability can present itself as anger or frustration, and this can be the main symptom—especially for children—even though many people think of depression as sadness,” explains Dr. Oller. “That moody kid who seems angry and likes to throw tantrums or has a very short temper may be experiencing depression.”
Some other red flags to look out for, according to Dr. Oller, include:
- Lack of interest in activities they would normally enjoy
- Withdrawing from social activities
- Lower energy or fatigue
- A harder time finishing schoolwork or uncharacteristic drops in grades
- Spike in cravings for comfort foods, like carbohydrates and sugary foods
“It is easy to think that decreased energy and interest could be due to laziness or a bad attitude; however, it could be something more, like SAD,” adds Dr. Oller. “If you do notice a change in your child’s mood, for example, talk with them about it. If your concerns aren’t resolving, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with their family physician, who can help you develop a plan to help your child.”
How to help your child manage mental health challenges from SAD
Being sensitive to your child’s mood changes or hardships can be helpful when trying to catch any mental health struggles early on, so is noticing whether your child is simply more introverted or anxious.
According to Dr. Oller, some actions you can take if your child is struggling with mental health effects of SAD include:
- Going on daily walks together
- Spending downtime together watching a favorite show
- Allotting more time to homework or classwork so they don’t get overwhelmed
- Following a schedule that prioritizes structure and sleep
Teaming up with your child’s medical team can also help in creating context and support for this season of their life. Your child’s pediatrician may recommend other therapies to help manage SAD, too, such as light therapy.
“Empower your child to understand their diagnosis of SAD so that it doesn’t seem so scary,” encourages Dr. Oller. “They may feel disappointed in themselves as they find themselves less able to concentrate and get their work done as they usually would. Let them know that you are there for them, and will help them come up with solutions and ways to help them with how they are feeling,” she says. “Your child will need your patience as they work through this, as symptoms won’t go away immediately.”
Normalize conversations around mental health at any age
Studies and trends have shown that adults (which includes parents!) struggle with mental health during these darker seasons too. Having open conversations around mental health and how you may be coping with your own challenges can open up lanes of communication with your children.
“Make discussion of things like mood, mental health and feelings normal in your house,” encourages Dr. Oller. “Ask your child frequently about how they are feeling, what is bothering them, what is making them happy, what they are enjoying at school, what is causing them worry, and if there is anything they would like to talk about.”
Normalizing the use of a light box during colder months or changing the lightbulbs to brighter ones can also be helpful in supporting everyone’s mental health. And if you, as a parent, have a history of SAD, it’s important to offer that context to your children.
“We know that a family history of SAD can increase someone’s risk of developing it themselves, so if you have a family history you will want to make sure you are particularly attuned to changes in your child’s mood around the fall,” suggested Dr. Oller. “For example, my mother had SAD and recognized as an adult that a light box greatly helped her. I have known that I am more likely to have these tendencies as well, and am very aware of my mood as the days get shorter. I have found that ensuring I keep a consistent schedule, get enough sleep and stay engaged in activities I enjoy are very important to keep my depression stable.”
No matter how you’re navigating this season, staying attuned to shifts in your moods and your children’s may go a long way.