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7 Ways to Help a Child with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of major depression — and like other types of depression, it’s not just a grown-up problem.

Children, too, can experience SAD. But there are things parents and peers can do to help children cope with seasonal depression.

What causes SAD?

There can be a lot of underlying reasons a child or teen experiences SAD, but two of the major culprits are chemicals in the brain that control our mood and sleep cycles: melatonin and serotonin.

Melatonin affects our sleep. Our bodies produce more melatonin at night, and in winter, the nights are longer, so there’s more melatonin in our systems.

Serotonin affects our mood and energy levels, and we produce more of it when we’re exposed to sunlight. Less sunlight, less serotonin, making us feel sad and sluggish.

How to help a child with SAD

  • Acknowledge. Yes, your child could have a major depressive disorder. No, it’s not their fault, they’re not “just in a mood.” Acknowledging that a child or teen could have depression is the first step toward helping them.
  • Advocate. Research SAD yourself and explain it to others — including your family, friends and your child’s teacher — so they can better understand what your child is going through. When it comes to the school, you may ask that your child have more time to complete assignments or get access to counseling services while they work through their condition.
  • Encourage Activity. It’s harder to get in outdoor exercise during the winter (it’s cold and dark), but even indoor exercise releases endorphins that improve your mood and make you feel better.
  • Engage. People with SAD tend to want to withdraw, so we’ve got to pull them back to us. Encourage them spend time with friends and family — that sense of connection and involvement can be huge.
  • Diet. We say it time and again: food is medicine. A healthy diet (with fewer simple carbs and more vegetables and whole grains) can help anyone feel better, whatever the ailment.
  • Healthy Sleep. Since SAD can make kids want to sleep longer, it’s important to develop a healthy sleep routine — with enough hours of sleep and regular, set bedtimes and wakeup times (even on weekends and breaks).
  • Be Patient. SAD can be a lingering condition that doesn’t get better with a single sunny day. It’s important to find a treatment plan that works — and stick with it. If things get better, that doesn’t mean the depression is cured; it means the treatment is working.

Understanding the treatment options for SAD

If your child or teen has SAD, there are treatments that are proven to help, including:

  • More time in the sunshine. Just getting outdoors and exposing yourself to the sun for longer durations can help SAD symptoms.
  • Phototherapy. There are several models of tested, effective lights on the market that simulate sunlight. So if you can’t get into the sun during the day, these can be used indoors or at night.
  • Talk therapy. Just talking to a mental health professional, like a licensed therapist, can help a child or teen better manage the negative thoughts and emotions that accompany SAD.
  • Medication. Depression is a disease, and we shouldn’t be afraid to treat it as such. Antidepressant medications are an effective option for regulating the neurotransmitters that affect mood and energy levels.
  • Think you could have depression? Take the quiz in our Health Library.
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