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Is your child SAD?

Feb 2, 2022, 08:00 AM

Winter months can be harsh on people living in the Pacific Northwest. Shorter days with less sunlight, plus colder weather forcing more indoor activity, is a recipe for depression. This type of seasonal depression normally lifts in the spring when the days get longer. So, what is it and is seasonal depression real? 

What is SAD and what causes it?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD, or SAD depression) is a type of depression that is triggered by the brain’s response to decreased daylight. Experts don’t know exactly what causes it but believe that it has to do with the brain’s production of imbalanced levels of melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin helps you get to sleep and serotonin helps you feel awake. Ever noticed how it’s harder to sleep or nap when there’s a light on in the room? That’s because serotonin levels increase in sunshine and light environments. When it’s dark out, your levels of melatonin go up because the brain thinks it’s time for bed. Shorter days and longer darkness hours may lead to more melatonin production and less serotonin, creating the biological conditions of depression. 

What are the signs of seasonal depression? 

As the winter days get shorter and shorter, a child with SAD will often show several changes in personality, such as a change in mood, less time socializing, low energy levels, and difficulty eating, sleeping or concentrating. Other symptoms of seasonal affective disorder can include: 

  • Always feeling sad or hopeless 

  • A heightened sensitivity to rejection 

  • Yelling or crying randomly 

  • Complaints about physical problems that won’t go away (such as stomachaches and headaches) 

  • Inability to focus on activities at home or with friends, in school, or with other hobbies or interests 

  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness 

  • Expressions of death or suicide 

How is SAD depression diagnosed? 

SAD disorder can be diagnosed by medical and mental health professionals through a checkup or well-child visit. Some SAD symptoms like tiredness, loss of appetite and sleep pattern changes are similar to other medical conditions, so a medical checkup is necessary to determine whether your child has SAD, or another medical condition.  

What is the treatment for seasonal affective disorder? 

There are several SAD treatments a medical or mental health professional may recommend. They include:  

  • More exposure to light. Because some SAD symptoms are triggered by lack of light exposure, treatment can often involve more light exposure during winter months. There is some limited data to suggest that full spectrum lightbulbs may be helpful, but there is no data to delineate how many light bulbs are necessary to result in meaningful change.  Daily walks or outdoor exercise may also be helpful. But again, how much activity is needed is not known. 

  • Light therapy. There is strong data supporting the use of light therapy for the treatment of SAD. This involves using a special light in a box or lamp to simulate daylight. The person experiencing symptoms will sit in front of the light for about 30-45 minutes per day, first thing in the morning, not at bedtime. These light sources need to be of a certain minimum intensity. Ask your health care professional form more details about this treatment before starting. 

  • Talk therapy. Psychotherapy (talk therapy) can also be used as a treatment for SAD. Talk therapy focuses on reversing any negative thoughts and feelings of isolation or being lonely. It can also help someone learn about and understand their condition, as well as teach them how to cope with future bouts of seasonal depression. 

  • Seasonal affective disorder medication. Medication may also be prescribed for kids and teens with SAD. Antidepressants may help regulate the balance of serotonin and melatonin that affect mood and energy. 

Do we need to see a provider or can families deal with SAD at home? 

There are plenty of activities that kids and families can do at home to relieve and prevent symptoms of SAD. Start with educating yourself and your child about seasonal affective disorder (see links below). Then you can explain it to friends and family so they can understand your child better. Spending time with loved ones and friends who understand what your child is going through can help build connection and relieve feelings of isolation or loneliness.  

Physically, make sure your child gets plenty of exercise, and exercise outside whenever possible. Eating a balanced diet is key as well. Avoid simple carbohydrates and sugary snacks and focus on wholegrains, vegetables and fruits. You can also use food to boost melatonin and serotonin levels. Cherries are rich in melatonin, and bananas, oatmeal, and milk boost melatonin production. Lots of serotonin rich foods, like eggs, chicken, nuts and seeds are also high in protein, which will help provide energy for getting through the day. You’ll want to develop a sleep routine with a regular bedtime too.  

Most of all, be patient with your child. Don’t expect symptoms to go away immediately.