Can kids get seasonal affective disorder? Here's what experts say.

Kids can experience seasonal depression, experts say. (Photo: Getty)
Kids can experience seasonal depression, experts say. (Getty)

Many people aren't exactly thrilled about the cold temperatures and icy conditions winter can bring, but some actually experience a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder impacts about 5% of adult Americans and up to 20% of adults may get a milder form of the condition called the "winter blues." But what about kids?

Children also struggle with depression — data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that about 4.4% of children experience depression in general. But can kids get seasonal depression? Experts say yes.

"Kids can experience seasonal depression symptoms, for sure," Thea Gallagher, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, tells Yahoo Life. "There is less socializing, less being outside in the unlight ... those factors can have the same impact on kids as they do on adults."

Melissa Santos, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and division chief of pediatric psychology at Connecticut Children’s, agrees. "It’s believed that seasonal affective disorder is caused by how the brain responds to decreased sunlight," she tells Yahoo Life. "That decreased sunlight is thought to cause the brain to create some imbalances in hormones, which causes the depression to occur."

But what are the signs of seasonal depression in kids and how can you address this with your child? Here's what parents need to know.

What is seasonal affective disorder, again?

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that has a seasonal pattern, and symptoms usually last about four to five months a year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). While people can develop SAD in the summer months, it's most common in the winter months.

Overall symptoms of SAD, according to NIMH, can include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day

  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight

  • Having problems with sleep

  • Feeling sluggish or agitated

  • Having low energy

  • Feeling hopeless or worthless

  • Having difficulty concentrating

  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

  • Oversleeping

  • Overeating and craving carbohydrates

  • Weight gain

  • Social withdrawal

Symptoms of SAD can be different in kids

Kids can experience any of the above symptoms of SAD, but Gallagher says they tend to look a little different. This can include:

  • Irritability

  • Anger

  • Acting out

  • Having confusing emotions

  • Experiencing ups and downs that don't seem to be connected to something

Again, though, the pattern is seasonal. "What makes SAD unique is that it appears at the same time each year and generally resolves when spring time, and increased sunlight, returns," Santos says.

How to cope with seasonal depression in kids

There are definite challenges to addressing seasonal depression in kids, including the fact that it's often dark by the time they get home from school or you're done with work, making it tough to help them burn off energy in your local park or playground.

If you suspect that your child has SAD, Gallagher recommends asking your child about how they're feeling. "It's always good to talk about it," she says. But, Gallagher cautions, you may need to have these conversations after a meltdown. "In moments when kids are activated, it can be hard for them to process how they're feeling and what's going on," she says.

Santos suggests using yourself as an example to try to normalize SAD and the winter blues. She recommends saying something like, "You know Mom notices when the days get shorter, it’s really hard to want to go outside and be active because it is so cold and dark out. What have you noticed differently about you?"

Like all conditions, there is a range with SAD. It's a good idea to connect them with a health care provider or mental health expert who can properly diagnose and treat them, Gallagher says. Treatment may include having your child do their homework or read next to a special light box to help them get higher levels of vitamin D, or even anti-depressants if you and a health care provider determine they're needed.

Once you get your child talking about their emotions and connect them with a health care provider, Gallagher suggests doing your best to manage and monitor the things in their life that you can control. "Get some level of stability and routine, like a regular sleep schedule and being outside often," she advises. "It's important to get them the care and attention that they need."

This article was originally published on Jan. 9, 2023 and has been updated.