Seasonal Affective Disorder in Teens

In the cold, snowy, winter months ahead, we often think of the holidays and pleasant memories with our families from years past. For many, however, this time of year is not a cheerful one. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression whose onset is typically in the winter months, although summer SAD exists as well. Also referred to as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern by the DSM-5, this disorder is quite common and usually starts in young adulthood, putting teenagers and adolescents at risk.

Many of us in the United States feel less energetic in the winter months, especially January and February, when temperatures are at their lowest and days are at their shortest. It has been reported by the National Institute of Health that the length of days and amount of sunlight has a direct correlation with mood stabilization and energy levels, which usually predicates Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sometimes, it can be hard to identify if your teen is affected by SAD because it only happens at certain times of the year, and it may take years to recognize their behavior pattern.

Does My Child Have SAD?

Many of the symptoms of SAD align with the symptoms of depression, the difference being that during alternate times of the year, your child may seem in a consistently better mood and more engaged. It can be difficult to see this change in your child, but it is important to recognize the pattern so that you and your child can determine the best plan of action for preventing and treating their symptoms in these months.

Symptoms of SAD that you may notice in your child include:

  • Lack of enjoyment in activities. Like major depression, one of the signs of SAD is your child no longer finding interest in the things that used to bring excitement. They may no longer want to participate in school activities or hang out with friends. Negative thinking also falls into this category, as they may become very critical of themselves and sensitive to criticism from you or their teachers.
  • Changes in mood. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mood disorder. Meaning it affects an individual’s mood and causes them to act out on their emotions at times. Your child may be experiencing mood swings, be more discouraged or sad than they usually are, or cry more often during these winter months.
  • Low energy and changes to sleep. The lack of Vitamin D absorption in the winter months can affect your child’s energy levels, causing them to feel much more fatigued even after a full night’s sleep. They may also have a different sleeping pattern or begin to show signs of insomnia during these months as well. You might have noticed it’s been more difficult to get them up in the morning for school during or for early activities.
  • Trouble concentrating. Your teen may begin to start showing less interest and initiative in school, and their grades may begin to drop as a result of the effects of SAD. They might find it harder to concentrate because of their lack of interest.
  • Changes in eating patterns. Seasonal Affective Disorder has been known to increase craving for carbohydrates and overeating. As a result, weight gain may be noticeable in the winter months. This can affect your teen’s image of themselves, making them feel downtrodden.

What Can I Do to Help? 

Because SAD can be predicted, it is important to take the necessary measures for your teen so that they can lessen their symptoms as much as possible. SAD, and even major depressive disorder, may not be preventable and do not have a set “cure,” but there are therapies and medications that are available for those suffering.

  • Try to Understand. Sometimes learning about your child’s disorder and beginning to understand how it affects their everyday life may be the help they need. If you yourself have witnessed depression, or know a loved one who has, try to use those examples to relate to what your child may be experiencing.
  • Seek Treatment. Treatments for SAD include light therapy, medicine, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and exercise. Light therapy is the most effective form of treatment for the mood swings that come with SAD. It involves exposing a person to light from a lightbox for a brief amount of time each day to improve energy levels and mood. Medications like anti-depressants can be used in the months leading up to and during the season of SAD. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be effective for anyone suffering from depression as it can provide them with different perspectives. Each of these options can and should be discussed with your child’s doctor.
  • Support them post-diagnosis. Receiving a mental health diagnosis can feel relieving at first but defeating in the following weeks. It can be tough hearing that your child is suffering from SAD, but try to remain supportive of them through those tough months by being open and understanding and be proud of any efforts they make to improve.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is a relatively common disorder that affects a large population in the United States. It usually begins in early adulthood, so it is important that you remain aware of your child’s patterns of behavior and mood. This way, both of you can learn the best ways to manage the symptoms brought on by SAD. Remaining supportive, seeking help from your child’s doctor, and trying to understand what your teen is going through is the best course of action for helping your child through these tough months. They will need your support and help, and even if you don’t fully understand, the additional care will help more than you realize it. At Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center, we understand the toll that SAD can put on teenagers and adolescents. Call us today at (303) 443-3343 to explore our many treatment options for both teens ages 12-17 and their parents. 

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