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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Also called: SAD, Seasonal Depression

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is depression that happens only at a certain time of year. With SAD, kids and teens tend to become depressed in fall or winter, when days are shorter and it gets dark earlier. Once the daylight hours grow longer again, symptoms go away.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

As with other kinds of depression, SAD can lead to:

  • Changes in mood. Someone may feel sad or be cranky, discouraged, or hopeless. They may also cry a lot or get upset easily.
  • Negative thinking. Kids and teens may be harder on themselves or more sensitive to criticism. They may complain or blame others more often than usual. They may also think nothing will get better.
  • Lack of enjoyment. People with SAD may not want to see friends or do activities that usually interest them.
  • Low energy. Someone with SAD may be tired or lack energy. Things can seem like they take too much effort
  • Changes in sleep. Kids and teens may sleep a lot more and have trouble getting up for school.
  • Changes in eating. Kids and teens may crave less healthy foods like chips or sugary snacks and overeat. This can lead to weight gain. Or they might not feel hungry and eat less.
  • Trouble focusing. Like any depression, SAD can make it hard to focus, which can harm schoolwork and grades. Kids may also feel tense, restless, or fidgety.
  • Suicidal thoughts. Someone with SAD may have thoughts of death, not wanting to live, or hurting themselves.

These symptoms tend to happen only during the time of year when there are fewer hours of daylight. As the season changes and days become longer again, kids and teens with SAD will have higher energy levels and a better outlook.

What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

The exact cause of SAD isn't clear, but some kids' and teens' brains react differently to fewer hours of daylight.

Daylight affects two chemicals in the brain: serotonin and melatonin. When it’s sunny, the brain makes more serotonin. High levels boost feelings of happiness and well-being. Low levels lead to depression. When it’s dark, the brain also makes more melatonin. High levels cause you to feel sleepy and have less energy.

Shorter days and more hours of darkness in fall and winter may decrease serotonin and increase melatonin. This makes depression more likely to happen.

How Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Diagnosed?

Talk with your doctor if you think your child has SAD. Doctors diagnose it by asking questions and listening. A health checkup can see if the symptoms are due SAD or something else.

How Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) Treated?

If a child or teen is diagnosed with SAD, the doctor may recommend one or more of these treatments:

More Light Exposure

Spending more time outside during daylight hours is often enough to improve SAD. Taking a daily walk or getting other exercise outdoors are ways to do this. Full-spectrum (daylight) bulbs that fit in regular lamps can help bring a bit more daylight into winter months and might help mild symptoms.

Light Therapy (Phototherapy)

This therapy may help treat more severe symptoms. With a special lightbox or panel on a table or desk, the person sits in front of it for about 45 minutes a day. Symptoms tend to get better within a few days or weeks. The person will likely use the box until there’s enough sunlight outdoors again.

Talk Therapy

Talking with a therapist can help kids and teens work through negative thoughts and feelings that happen with depression. It can also help them understand SAD and learn how to prevent it. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the common and helpful types of therapy for depression.

Medicine

Doctors may prescribe medicine like an antidepressant, which can help balance chemicals in the brain.

How Can Parents Help?

If your child or teen is diagnosed with SAD, start by talking about it. Ask your doctor how you can be supportive. You also can:

  • Encourage your child to get plenty of exercise, especially outdoors.
  • Spend time together in ways that don't require much energy, like watching a movie.
  • Be patient because it may take time for symptoms to improve.
  • Help organize homework. You can also ask teachers for extra time for assignments.
  • Try to serve lots of whole grains (like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and oatmeal), vegetables, and fruit. Limit less healthy things like white bread, sugary snacks, and soda.
  • Have your child go to bed and get up at the same time each day to get the most daytime light.

If your child or teen has SAD, explain that it’s seasonal. So even though it could happen each year, there are things that help if it does. Talk about how SAD will get better, even though it may seem hard right now.

What if My Child Might Need More Help?

If you're worried about your child, take it seriously and have a talk right away. You also can find help anytime at:

Reviewed by: Sabrina Gretkierewicz, PhD
Date Reviewed: Oct 1, 2023

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