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Children susceptible to mood changes in winter

Seasonal affective disorder in children

As the hours of sunlight and average temperature outside drop, our moods or attitudes can do the same.

When our mood is significantly affected by a seasonal change, it is called depression with a seasonal pattern. You often may hear this condition referred to as the winter blues or winter depression, as it is most prevalent in the fall and winter months from November to March.

This disorder can occur among children and teens. As it gets colder and darker quicker, kids spend less time outside in the sun. This change in the daylight hours can unsettle the daily routines of kids, triggering what could become an annual occurrence, according to Nicholas Evangelidis, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Manhattan’s Via Christi Behavioral Health Clinic on Sunset Avenue.

“Sunlight exposure aids in regulating circadian rhythms that help regulate sleep, energy, appetite and mood,” Dr. Evangelidis says. “A disruption in this biological pattern can be a tipping point to trigger a depressive episode.”

What you can do to help

Have you noticed that each year at around the same time, your child’s mood begins to suffer? This is the key feature to look for when identifying whether your child is experiencing depression with a seasonal pattern, explains Dr. Evangelidis. 

“Just like the name, the key feature is onset and remission of major depressive episodes at a recurrent and similar time of year,” Dr. Evangelidis says. “Characteristics of these depressive episodes frequently include hypersomnia (increased sleep), overeating, weight gain and carbohydrate cravings.”

These symptoms can often be hard to overcome, especially during the holidays when it is easy to give in to carbohydrate and overeating cravings. To do so, parents should encourage their kids to eat healthy. 

“Continuing to eat a well-rounded diet with fruits and vegetables is important,” Dr. Evangelidis says. “Limit the intake of excess carbohydrates that are found in nearly all holiday sweets.”

Get out

Continuing to go outside and have daily sunlight exposure, even if it is only for 30 minutes, is also crucial, Dr. Evangelidis emphasizes: “When it is cold outside, you can still find a way to exercise at home or join an indoor facility that fits your family’s needs.”

If you do feel like your child needs to see a psychiatrist, they would likely be treated with therapy, medication or a combination of both. Light boxes could also be used as a form of care.

“Light boxes for bright light treatment can be prescribed by your doctor to help treat seasonal depression,” Dr. Evangelidis says. “The type of light box and amount of light should be discussed in detail with your doctor and not used without appropriate caution.”

If you do feel like your child is suffering from depression with a seasonal pattern, or if they have in the past, the best care might be self-care. Planning ahead to help your child stay active and implementing a healthy diet could keep their moods warm and bright during the cold, dark months.

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