At this time of year kids and teens may be susceptible to the winter blues, which, in its more serious form, is called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD usually occurs during the winter months, when it is colder and there is less sunlight, although, one does not have to live in a freezing, snowy climate to experience seasonal depression. Those living in milder climates may also experience the blues.
It is important to learn the symptoms of depression in children so you can recognize them, and if necessary, address them immediately. All types of depression are more common in older children and teens, but it is possible for a younger child to experience SAD, especially with a family history of depression. Therefore, if your child’s behavior seems to change with the season, it is time to take notice.
Childhood depression often looks different from the adult type. Even very sad kids will appear happy sometimes—during a funny movie, or playing with friends, but it doesn’t mean they are fine. Children typically have mood fluctuations, even if they are depressed.
The most common symptoms of SAD (and childhood depression) include:
- Feeling sad, overly sensitive, or crying excessively
- Anger, crankiness, moodiness
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual
- Eating much more or less than usual (for an extended period of time, not just a day or two)
- Low energy level, difficulty concentrating
- Reduced interest in normal activities at home, in school, and socially
- Stomachaches, headaches, or other physical complaints that don’t respond to medical treatment
- Thoughts of death or suicide (not as common in young children)
Not every depressed or sad child will exhibit every symptom; some may have only two or three. If you think that your child has the winter blues, take these five steps:
- Continue to observe. Watch your child’s behavior for a week or so. Then, if you still see symptoms and feel that he is emotionally under the weather, move to step #2.
- Talk to your child. Ask how she is feeling. Inquire about possible school and friend stressors. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—you won’t “give your child ideas” that she doesn’t already have. If there is no significant stressor, but she still seems unhappy, move to step #3.
- Talk to the teacher. In most cases, when a child has the blues, his behavior will change everywhere, not just at home, so the teacher is sure to notice any mood change too. If the teacher (and other significant adults in your child’s life), confirms your concerns, move to step #4.
- Meet with your child’s doctor. It is important to rule out medical factors that may cause a child’s mood to change. For example, either mononucleosis or hypothyroidism can cause low energy level or trouble concentrating. After ruling out medical factors, you and the doctor can decide the next step. If the doctor recommends that you speak with a mental health professional, do so right away. See step #5.
- Seek expert help. If treatment is necessary, it will vary depending on the severity of your child’s symptoms and her age. No one child is the same and there are several treatment options, including light therapy, increased natural light exposure, talk therapy, or medication.
Dr. Susan Bartell is a family psychologist. Her latest book is The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask.