Seasonal Affective Disorder and Children: How to spot it and what to do next

Seasonal Affective Disorder

As the year comes to an end, so do days with lots of sunshine. And, as those days get shorter, making way for more night hours, it gets cold. This means less time to spend outside, and more time to stare out the window at seemingly endless amounts of darkness. Waking up in the morning is no longer as exciting as it used to be, because when that alarm sounds, outside that window is the exact same darkness as the day before.

The lack of sunlight, the cold temperatures and inability to spend time outdoors is causing feelings of sadness, low energy and even sleepiness.

The above description may be depressing to read, but imagine living it. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real condition that affects an estimated 10 million Americans according to Psychology Today. And while few studies have been conducted on children, recent reports published on the American Academy of Pediatrics show that one million children and adolescents also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. If this describes your child, he or she may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as, SAD.

But, how do you know if your child has SAD or if it is just cabin fever?

The wintertime can be a let down for many kids, and they can feel cooped up, and even be irritable. This is really quite normal for a lot of people, and can simply just be a case of cabin fever or the winter blues.

However, there is a difference between these mild cases of sadness and actual Seasonal Affective Disorder.

If you suspect your child suffers from SAD, consider the following diagnostic criteria:

  • If the depression occurs only during the winter months, and has been a recurring pattern for at least two years.
  • If your child has frequent low energy
  • Experiences hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness/excessive time spent sleeping)
  • Shows signs of overeating that may be leading to weight gain
  • Craves for carbohydrates, particularly sweets and junk food
  • Is withdrawing socially

If your child shows the following symptoms in addition to those associated with SAD, it may be a sign of major depression, and should be seen by a professional.

  • Feels depressed on a daily basis
  • Describes feelings of hopeless or worthless
  • Loses interest in activities he or she used to enjoy
  • Struggles with sleep (sleeping too much or too little)
  • Is easily agitated
  • Has a hard time concentrating in school, home or in general
  • Expresses thoughts related to death or suicide

What can you do to help?

As mentioned above, if your child exhibits signs of major depression, seek professional help as soon as possible. And while it is recommended that you seek help from your pediatrician or a mental health professional if you suspect your child has SAD, there are some things that you can do. Here are some of those things:

Light Therapy

Your pediatrician may prescribe light therapy to essentially mimic sunlight that occurs in the warmer months. While it can be performed at a medical center, many doctors will send you home with a small box that you can set up in your child’s playroom. You will usually be given an amount of time per day to use it, which is normally 20-30 minutes.

The theory that has been proven to work in a large portion of cases, is that the light will trick the mind into believing that it’s getting the sunlight it needs, and as a result, reduce symptoms of SAD.

Unfortunately, not much research has been conducted on children and light therapy, so you may need to see for yourself how/if it works.

Give your child a Vitamin D supplement

SAD has been linked in several studies to a vitamin D deficiency. Due to this, it is often recommended to use a vitamin D supplement. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Global Diabetes & Clinical Metabolism, found a link between Seasonal Affective Disorder and Vitamin D Deficiency.

The researchers concluded that melatonin levels rise and fall with light and darkness.This means that when it’s dark, an individual could feel tired, and with more dark hours, it will reduce energy levels prematurely. This change can also impact hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism, and then consequently lead to depression. The researchers concluded that supplementation with high doses of vitamin D lessened these symptoms.

There are many over the counter options, as well as vitamin D enriched foods that may give your child that extra boost he or she needs.

Go on a mini sun vacation

Wintertime can be long, or at least feel that way. If it is in your time and financial budget to do so, consider taking a vacation to somewhere sunny for a few days, or longer depending on your circumstances.

Soaking up the sun for a while may very well give your child that extra boost he or she needs. And the memories may even carry him or her through the remaining weeks until springtime.


Some cases may require psychotherapy. A therapist trained in treating SAD will use this as a time to work with your child on identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with more positive ones. The therapist will work with you and your child to identify activities that are enjoyable, both indoors and outdoors in an effort to better cope with wintertime.

*As always, if you feel your child is suffering from the issues addressed in this article, consult a licensed mental health professional to help you and your child navigate this difficult time. And don’t be afraid to have open and supportive dialogue with your child, so that he or she knows there is no judgement and that you are there to help.