Everything You Need to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder in Kids

young girl looking out the window on a rainy day

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Many kids are excited by the change in seasons each year. They enjoy the colorful leaves, crisp air, and falling snow. But other kids seem to struggle just to get through the day—especially as the days get shorter and colder. Instead of enjoying the change, these kids seem to be irritable, depressed, and tired.

For some kids, this low mood and reduced energy is the result of a type of depression known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD. If your child's mood changes every time fall and winter roll around, you may wonder if your child, too, could have SAD. Ahead, experts share advice on how to make sense of this confusing diagnosis.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a type of depression that typically occurs during the fall and winter months. However, there are a small number of people who will experience SAD during the spring and summer instead, says Mary Fristad, PhD, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist and director of academic affairs and research development at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Overall, SAD is listed under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) as a type of depression.

Mary Fristad, PhD

The best data indicates that somewhere around 3% of children will experience SAD with a range of 1.5% to 5.5%.

— Mary Fristad, PhD

Experts are not certain what specifically causes SAD, but according to Dr. Fristad, there are three primary theories as to why it might occur. For instance, there may be too much melatonin in the body on days with less sunshine so kids may either sleep more or try to energize themselves by eating more. There also is the idea that the body's circadian rhythm has been desynchronized as well as the thought that people with SAD have less serotonin.

Signs and Symptoms of SAD

When it comes to recognizing SAD in a child, the symptoms mirror those of other types of depression. The difference is that SAD occurs during a specific season of the year and then resolves when the seasons change. Additionally, every child is different and some children will not necessarily experience all of the symptoms.

Potential Symptoms of SAD

  • Being irritable for no apparent reason
  • Feeling unusually sad
  • Losing interest in their favorite activities
  • Having very little energy
  • Experiencing changes in eating habits particularly overeating
  • Being tired and wanting to sleep a lot
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Having thoughts of death or suicide

According to Dr. Fristad, it is important to note that when kids are irritable or depressed, it will not always look the same as they would in an adult. For instance, a child who is irritable may have a temper tantrum, whereas an adult would just be grouchy.

Pay attention to your child's moods and what is normal for them and what is not. When your child is not behaving like themselves, then it is time to talk to a healthcare provider to determine what might be causing the changes.

Risk Factors for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Most often, SAD develops in a person's early 20s, but it does occur in older children and teens. Overall, kids with a family history of SAD or those who live where daylight hours during winter are shorter or days are more overcast tend to have a higher risk of developing SAD, says Dr. Fristad.

"The closer you are to the equator, the more sunshine you will have in the winter," she explains. "So, you want to look at your own weather patterns. I grew up in North Dakota with crisp blue skies and where it was tempting to go outside but in Ohio, the gray skies don't provide a lot of incentive to go out. Think about your own geographic location and what kind of sun exposure you have."

How Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Diagnosed?

When it comes to diagnosing SAD, healthcare professionals will often begin by ruling out medical issues that may cause the same symptoms, says Dr. Fristad. For instance, being tired or fatigued could be a sign of an underlying medical condition like hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, or mononucleosis.

"You need to make sure it's not something else that's causing the change in behavior and that there's not something physically wrong," says Dr. Fristad. "For example, a girl in her early teens that just started menstruating could be anemic which is causing the low energy. We need a careful explanation of the symptoms we are seeing before we tack on any diagnosis."

Mental health professionals also will make sure that the things your child is experiencing are not related to something else in their life like a dispute with a friend or a lack of interest in school. Paying attention to how your child acts during the week when they have school and on the weekends when they can do what they want can help you determine if their mood is being impacted by depression or just a general dislike for school.

"If they brighten during the weekend or on holiday break that sounds more like 'I hate school disorder' rather seasonal affective disorder," explains Dr. Fristad.

But if their mood is consistently low regardless of the day of the week—and other medical conditions have been ruled out—it could be seasonal affective disorder. Ultimately, most mental health professionals look for the following things before diagnosing a child with SAD—having two season-based episodes of depression in the last two years and a lot more seasonal episodes than non-seasonal episodes over their lifetime.

How Is Seasonal Affective Disorder Treated?

Once a child has been diagnosed with SAD, doctors may recommend a number of different treatments. The first of which is light therapy, or phototherapy, says Dr. Fristad. This treatment involves a special light that simulates daylight.

The person sits in front of the light for 30 minutes or more in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon as well, she says. Sometimes symptoms can improve within a few days to a few weeks, depending on the severity.

Some kids also will benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This treatment option focuses on challenging negative thoughts and feelings often associated with depression as well as changing behaviors. So, if your child says that there is nothing to do in the winter, a mental health professional may challenge that belief and help your child come up with a list of things they could do on gloomy days.

How to Ease Symptoms

  • Open the shades in your home
  • Spend time outdoors
  • Use a "dawn simulator," which gradually turns on lights
  • Plan a mid-winter vacation to a sunny climate
  • Use light therapy

When other therapies and interventions do not work, sometimes SAD is treated with antidepressants to help regulate the balance of serotonin and other neurotransmitters that impact your child's mood. But, you need to realize that when some kids are on antidepressants, there may be an increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

You will need to be vigilant and watch for increasing anxiety, agitation, or talks about death and dying and seek help right away. If your child is taking antidepressants, they need to be monitored by a healthcare professional on a regular basis.

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If they are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Tips for Helping Your Child Cope With SAD

If your child has been diagnosed with SAD, it is important that you support them throughout their treatment. Learn what you can about the disorder and talk to a healthcare professional about how you can support them.

Additionally, you can implement a few strategies at home that may help alleviate some of their symptoms as well, says Tony Nader, MD, PhD, MARR, a Harvard-trained medical doctor with a PhD in neuroscience from MIT. Here are some things you can try.

Establish a Routine

Having a consistent schedule for meals and sleep can go a long way in creating stability in your child's life. Plus, the predictability of a routine can lessen anxiety and train the body and the mind about what to expect next.

Tony Nader, MD, PhD, MARR

It is very important to have a regular routine. Seasonal affective disorder causes the body and mind to get disrupted and to lose its sense of stability.

— Tony Nader, MD, PhD, MARR

Consequently, try to establish regular mealtimes and bedtimes. You also should try to stick to this routine—within reason—even on the weekends. This allows your child's mind and body to know what to expect and can create a sense of peace in knowing what happens next.

"There is a need for stability and routine—sleeping on time and eating on time even exercising on time—that helps a lot," Dr. Nader says. "At the same time, it's important to have variety. [With a routine], we feel at home and the body has a reference point, but it also gets boring, so it is important to change activities from time to time."

Get Outside

Because SAD is so heavily impacted by sunlight—or the lack of sunlight—it is important to make sure that your child is getting outside some every day. Even if it is just for a brisk walk with the dog, it is important for kids to be outdoors during daylight hours.

"Try to make sure your child is outside enough, spending time in the kind of light they need and playing with others," Dr. Nader says.

Develop Healthy Habits

When it comes to dealing with seasonal affective disorder, it is important to help your child develop healthy habits like eating nutritious meals, getting plenty of exercise, and practicing good sleep hygiene.

"During meals, it is best to eat sitting down and not watching television," Dr. Nader explains. "[Teach your child how to] pay attention to what they are eating. In other words, 'What do you see?' 'What do you taste?'" They also should chew properly, he says. These are simple things but very important for the stability of the system.

"What we put our attention on changes the blood flow in our body," he says. "Attention during eating is important because now the whole body is engaged rather than distracted. These mind/body relationships require attention and will help balance rhythms."

Rest and activity are very important, too, Dr. Nader adds. If your child is sitting all day at school, for example, then the night rest will not be healthy because they did not have much activity throughout the day.

Try Transcendental Meditation

Transcendental meditation is a way to allow the mind to move from surface-level thinking to quieter levels within itself, says Dr. Nader, who is also the head of the international Transcendental Meditation organizations in more than 100 countries.

Ultimately, meditation allows the mind and the brain to think in a more coherent and synchronized way. It also allows the mind to settle down and for the body to find the rest that it needs.

"When it comes to transcendental meditation, even children as young as age 5 can practice this technique," says Dr. Nader. "They can do it with their eyes open or they can be walking. It is a deep, settling experience and produces many wonderful results including improving many behaviors in children."

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect that your child may be struggling with seasonal affective disorder, talk to a healthcare provider about your concerns. They can help you rule out any possible medical conditions as well as refer you to a mental health professional if needed.

You also can make changes in your day-to-day lifestyle that, regardless of your child's diagnosis, can help them improve their mood. Some strategies include developing a routine, getting outside weather permitting, and engaging in transcendental meditation.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Center for Environmental Therapeutics. SAD: It's not the same for everyone.

  2. Nationwide Children's Hospital. SAD: Understanding seasonal affective disorder.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Winter blues and seasonal affective disorder.

  4. Children's Minnesota. Seasonal affective disorder: What parents need to know about SAD.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.