Dec 19, 2016


Dr. Gellner: We all know adults get seasonal affective disorder, but what about kids? Do they get it? We'll talk about that on today's Scope, I'm Dr. Cindy Gellner.

Announcer: Keep your kids healthy and happy. You are now entering The Healthy Kids Zone with Dr. Cindy Gellner on The Scope.

Dr. Gellner: Your child's pediatrician is usually the first person you turn to when your child starts having behavior changes. You wonder if it's something that's just a phase, or if there's something more serious going on. What if you notice that every fall, your child's schoolwork starts to suffer, they don't feel like socializing with their friends, and then when spring comes, your child is back to their happy, well-behaved, focused student self. This might be a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

SAD follows a seasonal pattern, making it different from other forms of depression. People with SAD usually have symptoms of depression as winter approaches and daylight hours become shorter. When spring returns and the days become longer again, their symptoms go away and they're happier again, so SAD pretty much has the same symptoms as depression in general.

Kids will have mood changes for at least two weeks, where they will be more sensitive or have feelings of hopelessness. They will lose interest in things they used to really enjoy, be unusually tired, sleep much more than usual, which can interfere with their ability to get ready for school on time, have a change in their eating patterns, usually more comfort and sugary foods, have a hard time completing assignments on time, and are not motivated to do well in school when they usually do quite well. They'll spend less time with friends in social activities.

The depression with SAD is thought to be related to the brain's response to decreased daylight exposure, but we're not quite sure how it all works. Current theories focus on melatonin, the hormone in our brain that is higher in the dark and makes us sleepy, and serotonin, the happy hormone, which increases with exposure to light.

About 6 in every 100 people experience SAD, and it's most common in older teens and young adults, usually starting in the early 20s. Girls are about four times more likely to develop SAD, as are people with relatives who have had depression. It is also more likely to happen in people who live further from the equator, mainly because of the long, dark days in the wintertime.

Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms. For more mild symptoms, increased light exposure helps, so your child's pediatrician may recommend taking a walk in the daytime, or using a full-spectrum light bulb that can fit into a regular lamp. For more severe symptoms, your child may need a stronger light from a light box that is placed on a table.

Most pediatricians aren't able to order these though and the lights must filter out harmful UV rays, that's why tanning beds are not a good idea for people with SAD. Sometimes antidepressant medications are prescribed if the symptoms are interfering with your child's ability to function and go to school. Talk therapy with a counselor also can help a lot.

So what can you as a parent do, if you suspect your child has SAD? First is to schedule an appointment with your child's pediatrician, and have them do a thorough history and evaluation to make sure there isn't anything else that could explain their symptoms. Next, realize that this is a brain chemistry issue, not a behavior problem. Be supportive and non-judgmental, tell your child you've noticed that they just don't seem themselves lately, and see if they open up about anything. Tell them you've made an appointment with a pediatrician because you want to help them feel better and get back to doing their best, and having fun with their friends.

If your pediatrician suspects your child does have SAD, be sure to find out how you can best help your child. Help them get outside by going on walks with them, and be sure they understand what SAD is. Spend a little extra time with your child so they feel cared about, and be patient with them. Help them with their schoolwork, and possibly let their teachers know what is going on to see if they can get some extra time with assignments. Be sure they continue to eat healthy foods and keep their same sleep schedules.

Finally, take their symptoms seriously. If your child has been diagnosed with SAD, talk about their feelings as they let you, and remind them that even though things may seem impossible right now, things will be better in the spring.

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