More Than the Winter Blues? Kids and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) During Quarantine

By: Vanessa Laurent, PhD, and Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD

As the days grow shorter and the hours of sunlight decrease, your child may feel sad or sluggish from the gray skies. For some kids and teens, this feeling may be a more serious problem known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. And the COVID-19 pandemic could mean a greater risk this year.

Connecticut Children’s pediatric psychologists explain.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?

SAD is a form of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. Typically, individuals with SAD have symptoms of depression in the fall leading into the winter, with some reprieve in the spring and summer.

While SAD is often talked about in terms of adults, children and adolescents can experience similar symptoms.

> Related: Signs Your Child Might Be Depressed or Anxious – and What to Do Next

What causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Although the exact cause of SAD remains unknown, the decrease in sunlight is believed to lead to disruption in our biological clock. This may impact the brain’s ability to produce two major hormones: serotonin (a chemical that helps regulate mood) and melatonin (a chemical that helps regulate sleep and mood).

 
 

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Are kids at greater risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s possible. As safety restrictions are placed on social gatherings, children will likely spend more time indoors, with less exposure to bright light. As a result, it seems likely that rates of SAD will be higher this year.

> Related: Tips and Tools to Support Your Child’s Mental Health

What are common symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Pay attention to symptoms of depression in your child.

  • Changes in mood
  • Changes in sleep
  • Low energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Self-isolation or spending less time with friends and family
  • Lack of enjoyment or loss of interest
  • Having thoughts of death or suicide*

*If you feel your child is in crisis, or a danger to themselves or others, call 911. In Connecticut, you can also call 211 for emergency or crisis intervention. For free, confidential support from the National Suicide Prevention Life Line, call 1.800.273.8255 or text “HOME” to 741741.

> Related: The Best Way to Prevent Youth Suicide? Talk About It

How can I tell if my child’s “winter blues” are actually Seasonal Affective Disorder?

It can be hard to tell if your child’s symptoms are due to SAD or something else, like the stress of starting a new school year or other stresses of the coronavirus pandemic. You’ll need a doctor’s help.

What should I do if I think my child might have Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Contact your child’s pediatrician. They can connect you with medical and mental health professionals to assess all of the factors affecting your child, and ensure that their symptoms aren’t due to an underlying medical condition.

> Related: Who to Contact When Your Child Needs Mental Health Support

How is Seasonal Affective Disorder treated?

  • Increased time outdoors: For children with mild symptoms, increasing daily time spent outdoors may lead to a decrease in symptoms.
  • Light therapy: Phototherapy involves using a special light to simulate daylight. This type of light should only be used under the supervision of a pediatrician.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy can help to address the negative thoughts and feelings associated with seasonal depression as well as teach children skills to prevent or minimize future episodes of SAD.
  • Medication: Antidepressants can help regulate the balance of serotonin and other chemicals in the brain.

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