Is your child down? Or does he or she have SAD? Know the difference. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
Is your child down? Or does he or she have SAD? Know the difference. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

It’s just a case of the winter blues… or is it?

As far too many of us are aware, low-light levels and bad weather conditions combine, creating the perfect storm for seasonal affective disorder, otherwise known as SAD.

Adults aren’t the only ones having a hard time coping through the long winter months. Did you know your kiddos are at risk for falling victim to this depression, too? And the struggle can become intense.

“Seasonal Affective Disorder can grow worse without treatment,” said Adelle Cadieux, PsyD, a childhood psychologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “It can lead to serious issues.”

A parent might attribute a teenager’s mood swings to age…or chalk it up to hormones. And younger children might not be able to identify how or why they are feeling a certain way. That’s why it is so important to ask questions and have conversations, Dr. Cadieux said.

She suggests parents familiarize themselves with the symptoms of SAD and keep a watchful eye out for the following signs and symptoms in their children:

  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Changes in school performance
  • Changes or increased problems with peers
  • Increased fatigue or decreased energy level
  • More tearful, sad or irritable
  • Increased behavioral problems
  • Sad, anxious or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities previously enjoyed
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • Social withdrawal
  • Feeling that arms or legs are “heavy”

Is your kid in the dark?

Lisa Lowery, MD, an adolescent medicine specialist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, said SAD symptoms may start around the holidays, but it is during these long, dreary days of winter that parents will truly see increased levels of anxiety and irritability in their kids.

“Parents, if you notice a steady stream of negativity, withdrawal and even complaints that their arms or legs feel heavy, it could be a case of SAD,” she said.

About 10 million Americans report dealing with SAD every year, and Psychology Today reports 6 percent of those people need hospitalization.

“Any time there is concern of clinical depression, which includes SAD, we want to promote safety,” Dr. Lowery urges. “This is when we consider treatments including light therapy, increasing physical activity levels to boost endorphins, or a course of monitored medication and psychotherapy. We must help them get back on track.”

Shedding light on help

Dr. Lowery explains that clinical evidence supports the relationship between less light and lower levels of serotonin production. Serotonin is a hormone that promotes positive feelings. Treatment aims to boost those levels, including light therapy.

So, just how does light therapy help?

“We aren’t sure how it happens or what impact it has on the brain, but by mimicking daylight, symptoms may improve,” Dr. Lowery said.

She cautions, however, that nearly half of people with SAD do not respond to light therapy alone. Antidepressant medicines and cognitive therapy may be required.

Dr. Lowery encourages families to first seek a medical diagnosis.

“There are many things we can do,” she said. “If we have the chance to treat and help kids get relief from SAD, we need to do it. They shouldn’t suffer needlessly.”