The clocks have been turned back and the days are shorter. For all of us, that means fewer hours of sunlight per day. For children who often head to school when it’s dark outside and return from after-school activities while it’s dark, they may see very, very little natural light. This is not a problem for most children, but for some this may bring on a set of symptoms that you as their parent may note happens at this time of year, most years.
Fall into winter is a typical time for the development of seasonal affective disorder, and while it usually starts in young adulthood, some children and teens develop the disorder. The symptoms in children and teens may sometimes be hard to identify because they tend to look like teen moodiness. But actually there are other telltale signs. Along with feeling sad and irritable, a child will also experience unusual fatigue, an increased appetite and a particular desire to eat carbohydrates, as a result often gaining weight. They have difficulty concentrating and schoolwork will suffer. Another sign is rejection sensitivity — over-interpreting any slight or judgment from peers and family — and as a result, they may withdraw from friends.
Symptoms of seasonal depression most commonly emerge during the transition from fall to winter and worsen as the days grow shorter. But some people experience SAD when spring turns to summer.
Why does it matter what kind of depression a child might be suffering? Because while some treatments for SAD and other types of depression are the same, one treatment is not. Light box therapy can make a real difference for children with seasonal affective disorder, and it comes with little to no side effects, unlike medications.
Special light boxes made specifically for treatment of seasonal affective disorder have bulbs that illuminate a very high intensity light of specific UV wavelengths. This provides the UV intensity of sunlight without the UV wavelengths that burn the skin. It is used first thing in the morning after waking, for 10 to 15 minutes to start, and increasing over time to 30 minutes. The box is kept about 2 feet from the face, and the patient does not stare at the light but merely has the light shine on their face. Many places sell what they call a light box, but it is not a clinically useful light.
A child with SAD should be evaluated by a mental health professional to rule out a concern of bipolar disorder first, because light therapy can cause a manic episode in someone who actually has bipolar disorder rather than SAD. A professional can recommend the correct type of light box as well as the amount of time and how often the patient should use it. This type of treatment can start working in a matter of days for some; for others it could take weeks.
In addition to light therapy, some patients may need medication, psychotherapy or both depending on the severity of the depression and how responsive it is to light therapy. Once a child is identified as having seasonal affective disorder, light box therapy can be initiated a few weeks before symptoms would typically start and prevent the development of the depression each season. As the days grow longer again, light treatment can stop.
Many adults who turn out to have SAD actually realize that this started for them as children or teenagers, and no one knew what it was. Early diagnosis can spare a child those recurrent depressed feelings and disruption of their ability to function.
More from U.S. News