The change of seasons can evoke strong emotions in us as humans. As leaves start to fall, some of us relish the change in temperature, the added layers and cosier nights, while others dread the cold, dark mornings and shorter days. For many though, this time of year means months of low mood and low energy as they face the recurring struggle of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder and what causes it?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a type of depression that is experienced during particular seasons or times of the year. This can show itself as a persistent low mood that impacts a person’s daily life. Most commonly this will be during the late Autumn and Winter months where the days are shorter and there is a lack of light.
While it is difficult to understand the exact cause of S.A.D. there are some things that are known. When our skin is exposed to sunlight our body creates vitamin D, so in months where there are fewer days of sunlight it’s common for vitamin D deficiency to occur. If someone lacks vitamin D, they’re likely to find their vitality and energy levels depleted. A person’s mood can also be less regulated and sleep patterns affected.
S.A.D. is less common in children but it can affect a significant number of older children and teens. As symptoms only surface during specific months it can be a number of years before any pattern is observed in a child. This can make it particularly difficult to diagnose S.A.D. in children and can mean they are slower to get the support they need.
What are the signs of Seasonal Affective Disorder in children?
Children can often struggle to put into words how they are feeling and so their behaviour can become their method of communication. It’s important to observe and notice changes in their behaviour which may be conveying deeper emotions. If you’re concerned your child may have S.A.D here are some of the signs and symptoms to look out for during this time of year:
Irritability such as fussiness or snapping more than usual
Tiredness and lacking in energy
Sadness, tearfulness and hopelessness
Clinginess, especially when leaving a caregiver
Anxiety and worry
Apathy, showing less interest or care for things they usually enjoy
Difficulty concentrating or sustaining attention
Struggling to retain information leading to asking the same questions or repeating themselves
Change in appetite
Withdrawal from social situations or friendships
What impact does Seasonal Affective Disorder have on a child?
If your child is experiencing the symptoms of S.A.D. it is likely you may begin to see this impacting other areas of their life. For example if they do begin to withdraw from friendships and social interactions they may start to feel like their relationships have changed or their confidence is knocked. If they are struggling to concentrate on their work, their academic progress may be affected and they may need more support than before. If a young person feels persistently sad or anxious you may notice their self esteem declining or their feelings of loneliness increasing. S.A.D. can also have a physical impact on those suffering with it. Many can feel too lethargic to exercise and may instead find comfort in what they eat. Adversely they may lose interest in food and so you may notice the impact in that way. As we support children and young people facing S.A.D it’s important to notice what other areas of their life may be affected by it.
How can I help?
If you’re concerned your child may have undiagnosed S.A.D. it's important to seek the advice of your GP if their symptoms are persistent and having a disruptive impact on their life.
If you have noticed a change in your child’s mood or behaviour, share this concern with them. Tell them about the change you have seen, express your care and let them know of your support.
Remember it’s not your child’s fault and so try to be supportive and not judgemental of them or their behaviour. Take them seriously and talk about how they are feeling. Try to be patient with them as they navigate their feelings, they may not want to talk about it straight away. Help them to find ways they can communicate their emotions whether that’s with words, actions, creative means or through play.
Help them to establish a healthy routine and habits. Work with them to find habits that contribute to their emotional and physical wellbeing. It can be hard to initiate new habits when you are already feeling low in mood and energy so try to help them establish these patterns during the Spring and Summer months. If these habits are already formed they will feel better able to continue them as Autumn approaches. One example might be encouraging physical exercise, and joining in this with them. They may be struggling to find the motivation to exercise for themselves so having your encouragement will really help.
Practically, you can try to keep rooms light during the autumn and winter months whilst also promoting outdoor activities and play as the weather permits.
Finally, ask your child what helps and what doesn’t. It can feel difficult to start these conversations, but it's so important that they know they can open up to you. Here's a blog I wrote on how to speak to your children about mental health, which gives advice on how to broach difficult conversations. When you get talking, they may tell you that they've already worked through their own coping mechanisms and can help you understand what will help them through this season and conversely what might not. It may also be that there is someone else that would be more suitable and beneficial for them to speak to.
By trying to understand S.A.D. and the impact it may have on a young person we are communicating to them our care and support. We may not be able to take away their suffering but we can be a companion who they can navigate their experience with.
If you're really worried about your child and you think counselling could be the answer, please get in touch with us and we'd be happy to talk it through.