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When your child’s ‘winter blues’ become something more serious

Teen sitting by window with hand on her chin

As much as so many of us complain about daylight saving time, it’s always a shock to the system when it ends. This year, we’ll turn the clocks back on Sunday, Nov. 5, and we’ll start preparing ourselves for shorter days, leaving work when it’s already dark and just that feeling that, yes, winter is coming.

For many people – including plenty of children – this is also when we feel more tired, more lethargic. Maybe you’re seeing changes in your child’s mood or their sleep patterns. Maybe they’re spending less time socializing or having trouble concentrating. What many people may call the “winter blues” is also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects both children and adults in equal rates (about 5% of the population) and typically occurs in the fall and winter months.

While that dip in mood and urge to hibernate might be common for many of us, kids experiencing symptoms of SAD need some additional treatments to help them through the struggle this winter.

Causes of SAD

The jury’s still out on the exact cause, but many experts believe the decreased amount of sunlight during the day is the primary contributing factor. With that change, studies have shown many people experiencing symptoms have increased rates of melatonin (a hormone produced in response to darkness that helps you fall asleep) and decreased levels of serotonin (a chemical that plays a big role in mood and sleep, among others). In addition, with less sun, we also see higher rates of vitamin D deficiencies.

Symptoms of SAD

Because SAD is a type of depression, many of the symptoms are similar, so keep an eye out for one or more of these in your child:

  • Reduced socialization and/or a lack of enjoyment in normal activities
  • Changes in overall mood
  • Sleep changes
  • Eating changes
  • Low energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Anger or irritability

Just like typical depression, if any of these symptoms last more than two weeks without relief – or if they’re interfering with daily activities – talk to your child’s doctor. 

You should also seek professional help if your child shows more concerning behaviors, such as:

  • No longer keeping up with hygiene
  • Declining grades at school
  • Refusal to participate in social engagement
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Treatments for SAD

The good news is that many therapies have proven to be very effective:

  • Exposure to sunlight. Yes, the days are getting shorter, but spending time outside when the sun’s out often does a good job of reducing symptoms. And for those cloudy, gloomy weeks? Try a full-spectrum light bulb (usually marked on the package as “daylight”) in your regular lamp to get some additional light inside.
  • Phototherapy. This next level of light therapy has been shown to treat more severe cases of SAD through the use of a light panel that can sit on a desk or table in your home. About 45 minutes a day in front of the panel through the winter months has proven to be effective.
  • Exercise. Getting off the couch (or out of bed) in the winter is tough, but encourage your kids to get moving, as exercise boosts mood and can help counteract that dip in serotonin.
  • Talk therapy. Depression often comes with negative thoughts and feelings, but a therapist can help kids process those feelings in a healthy way.
  • Medical interventions. If none of the above seems to work, your child’s pediatrician may recommend blood tests to learn more, vitamin D supplements to counteract a deficiency, or possibly even medication such as an antidepressant. If you’re seeing these changes in your child every year, their doctor can help plan preventive tactics to help ease the suffering.

How parents can help

It’s certainly normal to feel your body slowing down during the fall and winter. Just as the trees are changing colors and losing leaves, our bodies are also in sync with nature and feeling that urge to hibernate. It’s perfectly normal for your child to feel a little sluggish as the light changes. After all, who doesn’t want to just snuggle up at home this time of year?

While we all need to listen to our bodies and prioritize a little self-care, remember to stay vigilant and watch for when it becomes too much—when your child is leaning too heavily into hibernation mode.

Try to spend a little more quality time with your child if you can, prioritize a healthy sleep schedule and – most of all – be patient as your child’s symptoms slowly improve. This time of year already has plenty of additional stress for kids, like final exams, switching semesters and winter breaks—all of which can add additional pressure on children. Turning the clock back in the middle of it all certainly doesn’t help.

But with a little extra TLC, we can help our kids successfully make it through these dreary months. And before long we’ll be back to complaining about springing forward!


Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine