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Seasonal affective disorder and children

September 27, 2016 Charlotte Addison

Child with HappyLight
It's back-to-school time, which means cooler and shorter days are just around the corner. For many people, including children, less sunshine can mean mood changes, irritability and even depression. It's called seasonal affective disorder and it impacts a significant number of Americans, especially those living in northern regions. What is seasonal affective disorder, or SAD? Research suggests that in people with SAD, depression is triggered by the impact of less daylight on the brain. While the exact mechanism is unknown, experts believe the cause is related to role that sunlight plays in the production of key chemicals in the brain. A person with SAD will display behavior changes with a predictable seasonal pattern. Similar to other types of depression, SAD symptoms can be mild, severe, or anywhere in between.
Winter Blues, Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal
Especially for children, the impact of SAD can be difficult and confusing. As scientist and leading SAD thought leader, Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, suggests in his book, Winter Blues, a tactful and delicate approach can be helpful. “Try showing how nature, people and animals deal with the changes of seasons. – Once the presence of SAD is accepted, destigmatized, and regarded as a manageable fact of life, and once the child or adolescent is recruited as a collaborator in the treatment process rather than the object of it, all specific suggestions become much easier to implement.” According to Rosenthal, some common signs of SAD in children are:
  • Irritability and exhaustion
  • Temper tantrums
  • Difficulty concentrating and completing homework. Grades may suffer.
  • Physical aliments, such as headaches or stomach aches
  • Junk food cravings
Once your child understands and is willing to take steps to mitigate the effects of SAD, Dr. Rosenthal has found that children can be treated similarly to adults and suggests the following:
  • Seek out a psychologist or psychiatrist. It's important get a proper diagnosis for your child as well as any other treatment suggestions.
  • Make sure your child is exposed to artificial (bright light therapy) and sunshine. Children tend to need shorter sessions such as 10 to 15 minutes of bright light therapy, according to Rosenthal. Make sure your child gets as much natural sunlight exposure as possible.
  • Use bright light therapy lamps or dawn simulators to help your child wake in the mornings.
  • Review and make any needed changes to your child’s schedule. The effects of SAD may make it more difficult for your child to concentrate and perform. Demanding extracurricular activities in the fall and winter might be overwhelming, but keep in mind that physical activities can also help to mitigate SAD.
  • Help manage your child's stress levels. Anticipate projects and tests ahead of time, so your child has extra time to prepare.

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