Parenting: Kids and the winter blues

David Murphy says SAD (Seasonal Affective Dissorder) can affect kids, but the treatment is simple.
December 1, 2011

This can makes things tough for certain people who can grow moody and more lethargic as exposure to sunlight decreases. In some cases, depression can result. There's an acronym for this: SAD (which stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder). But while most of us think in terms of the ravages low sunlight can have on adults, it's important to remember that kids can be affected, too. Holisticonline has a nice description of SAD that includes a special section on kids. The gist: researchers have found that many adult SAD sufferers report having had similar seasonal depression when they were children. Further research: 6% of kids surveyed in a Minnesota school claimed to have experienced severe mood swings during the winter. Granted, Minnesota is farther north than we are and kids there experience an even lower sun angle than we do. But in another study involving more than 2,000 middle school students in the Washington, D.C. area, about 3% actually showed symptoms of SAD. According to the article I've linked, the Washington study concluded that as many as 5.5% of kids, aged 9-19, may have SAD.

This does not mean that those kids are clinically depressed. The most common effects, according to researchers, are fatigue and irritability. Other things to look for include a general sadness, sleep problems, nodding off during the day, less desire to take part in activities like sports, headaches, and an increase in appetite. In more extreme cases, a child may withdraw from family members, be prone to crying spells, and throw unusual temper tantrums.

See the light

Treatment includes the obvious: bright light therapy. A special lamp or bulb is needed, one that produces more light than typical lamps found around the house. Light is measured with a brightness unit called a lux. Typical table lamps produce about 500 lux. Bright light therapy involves a 5000 to 10000 lux light. Anywhere from a half-hour to 3 hours of exposure is desirable per sitting, although it's important not to look directly at the intense light to avoid eye damage. I'm including a shopping link to various lamps suitable for bright light therapy. Again, look for 5000 to 10000 lux lamps. Most of the prices on the above link are pretty scary, but if you scroll down, there's at least one small 10000 lux lamp listed for $99 (a lot cheaper than the $250 versions).

Another way to receive this sort of therapy is to use the real thing: the sun! If there's an exposed window that allows bright afternoon sunlight, it might be a good idea to position your child's homework desk toward that window and have them get to work before the sun sets. This tact is not always practical, depending on whether you have this sort of window available and when your kids get home from school.

A quick fix?

In any event, bright light therapy has been reported to improve a child's disposition in as little as a week, so it's probably worth a shot. Researchers advice parents to keep an eye out for the symptoms listed above, as well as whether school performance declines during the winter months, versus the early autumn or spring, and to consider bright light therapy if they notice any significant problems. If the therapy doesn't help, head to the doctor. Another nugget: some think SAD may be linked to puberty and may naturally improve once kids start to mature.

---David Murphy

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