Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in Children


Young Mother Sewing by Mary Cassatt

Did you know that children can suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)? I’m embarrassed to admit that I just found this out recently, after years of writing about mental health. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a condition that can cause depression, fatigue and overeating, among other things, and it is brought on by the change of seasons. According to Winter Blues by Normal Rosenthal, M.D., a survey done by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) showed that about three percent of children suffer from SAD, with a greater incidence occurring in the last three years of high school.

I’m surprised that it hadn’t occurred to me before. After all, if children could have clinical depression and other depressive disorders, why not SAD? Apparently even animals can suffer from SAD. Of course, it’s worth noting that all creatures on earth have a tendency toward SAD symptoms in the winter, but when normal functioning starts being impaired, it’s time to take a closer look.

So, is there a chance that a child you know has Seasonal Affective Disorder? Well, if he starts off the school year doing well, but his grades start dropping after the holidays, it’s possible. If she bounces out of bed after eight to ten hours of sleep in the summer but can barely drag herself out of bed after more than twelve hours of sleep in the winter, it’s worth looking into.

SAD in children can go undiagnosed fairly easily, especially in adolescents, who are expected to be moody and have trouble getting out of bed. A few seasons may need to pass before anyone notices a seasonal pattern in behavior.

Symptoms of SAD in Children

  • A change in appetite, especially a craving for sweet or starchy foods
  • Anxiety
  • A drop in energy level
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • A tendency to oversleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Avoidance of social situations

As with diagnosing SAD in an adult, the single biggest clue is whether the symptoms are seasonal.

It’s important that your child be evaluated by a qualified professional. If you think that your child has SAD, chances are good that your instincts are correct. But she still needs to see a doctor and have other possibilities eliminated first, and any treatment should be under a doctor’s care, even if the treatment is purely non-drug.

Treatment

As with adults, the most popular, and generally most effective, treatment for SAD is light therapy. As simple as it sounds, there are many do’s and dont’s to light therapy, which you need to be aware of in order to get the most out of it. This is one reason that your child should be treated by a doctor for SAD. Other treatments for SAD include psychotherapy and antidepressants, but in general light treatment is the first line of defense.

Here are some other ways to help your child combat Seasonal Affective Disorder:

  • Make sure your child eats a balanced diet. This is always important, of course, but more so when SAD brings on a craving for simple carbohydrates. In children, this can mean cravings for candy beyond the norm. Keep candy out of the house and make sure there are some sweet healthy snacks available, like fruit or low-fat granola.
  • Dawn simulation may help your child get out of bed more easily in the morning.
  • Increase the amount of sunlight your child gets wherever possible. Ask her teacher to move her seat next to the window, if she’s seated anywhere else. Encourage her to participate in outdoor winter sports or take walks outside when it’s sunny.

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