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Seasonal depression in tweens and teens Children's Wisconsin mental and behavioral health

Gray days: How to treat seasonal depression in tweens and teens

As the clocks turned back with daylight saving time ending, you may notice a shift in your kid’s moods or attitudes. While this may seem like typical teenage behavior, it is crucial to remain vigilant for any signs of serious mental health concerns. 

The “winter blues” is a common experience for many as the days shorten and the temperatures get colder. This is typically a short-term feeling of sadness as our bodies adjust to the changing season. Living in Wisconsin adds an additional layer to this, as the winter months seem to drag on and pose unique challenges to our well-being. It is crucial to recognize that even kids and teens specifically can experience the same mental health impacts that adults may have.

What is seasonal affective disorder?

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. Typically, SAD is most common during the winter months when the days get darker earlier and people spend more time indoors. 

Seasonal depression can be more challenging to detect in teens, given their occasional moody disposition. But, it is essential to determine whether there may be a deeper, underlying cause for that moodiness or irritability. It’s important to check in on teens to also help them make that connection of a shift in their behavior with something like decreased daylight or lack of activity.

If you begin to find your child displaying any of these symptoms, talk to your child’s pediatrician:

  • Social withdrawal 

  • Academic decline 

  • Not finding enjoyment in previously enjoyed activities 

  • Unhealthy comfort food cravings or lack of food with nutritional value

  • Anxiety 

  • Increased irritability

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Decreased appetite

Getting help

The good news is, there are treatments for seasonal depression that are well-researched and very effective. Some common treatments and therapeutic approaches include:

  • Talk therapy is generally the most effective form of treatment. Meeting with a licensed therapist or mental health provider can help identify specific issues and how they affect emotions, behaviors and thoughts.

  • A light therapy box mimics outdoor light. Evidence shows it helps the body produce the “happy” chemical, serotonin. Consult your child’s pediatrician before use. 

  • Medication may be prescribed for kids and teens. These medications can help regulate chemicals in the brain that will further affect energy and mood. 

  • Ensure your child spends time outside. Even brief amounts of time outdoors can help your child absorb vitamin D, a crucial nutrient to physical and mental health.

  • Get plenty of exercise and eat nutritious foods. And be sure to limit foods and drinks with added sugars. 

  • Opening shades throughout your home may help treat mild cases of SAD — every little bit of sunlight helps. 

  • Establish a consistent schedule and routine for your child.

  • Get 8-10 hours of sleep at night with no electronic devices present  

What can I do as a parent?

As with most issues, communication if key. Have open conversations with your child and allow them to express their feelings. Helping them understand the connection between the seasonal changes and their feelings can provide them some comfort and control. During these conversations, follow these guidelines:

Do not get frustrated with your child. Mood changes often present as irritability or changes in behavior, but it’s important to be supportive even in the face of worsening grades or a more negative attitude.

Figure out driving forces behind these changes. Have a positive and normative outlook on therapy. This will impact the way your child views it as well.

Other resources

The Craig Yabuki Mental Health Walk-In Clinic on the Children’s Wisconsin Milwaukee campus provides same-day care for children and teens (ages 5-18) experiencing urgent mental health issues. The clinic is designed to offer an alternative to traditional urgent care and emergency room services.

If your child is experiencing an emergency of any kind, please dial 911 or go straight to your closest emergency room.