How to help kids experiencing seasonal affective disorder
When Eliza Cussen welcomed her daughter, Eleanor, into the world in November 2019, she knew right away she wasn’t a “snow baby.”
On stroller walks, little Eleanor felt “displeased with the cold weather,” said Cussen, a Green Bay resident. But when sunlight hit the infant’s face, she looked astonished.
Most of the year, Eleanor is what Cussen describes as an “exuberant” child who loves the outdoors and taking in the sun. In the winter, though, she fluctuates between an antsy, almost hyperactive state where she wants to climb walls and chase her pets and a more “subdued” state where she doesn’t want to leave the house at any cost.
Eleanor is one of many young children who feel bogged down by the darker, gloomier months of the year. For millions of teenagers and adults nationwide, this persistently glum mood can be diagnosed as seasonal affective disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Here’s how you can help your little one through this bleak season.
What are the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder?
As the weather becomes colder and daylight wanes, individuals who normally experience depression and anxiety may see a worsening of symptoms. It’s also common for mental health concerns to flare up during winter.
In both instances, they may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, said Lisa Tutskey, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Prevea Health.
The sun makes us feel good. We get vital nutrients from sun, and encourages us to have more time to be outside and enjoy the weather, Tutskey said. But awful weather, on top of being shrouded in early darkness, tends to drive us indoors, which invites more inactivity than usual. That lack of exercise deepens low moods and further disrupts sleeping patterns.
These new habits render us sluggish, fatigued, prone to depression and being unmotivated.
Seasonal affective disorder isn’t typically diagnosed until the teen years, according to Carrie Finkbiner, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works in a leadership role at Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health (WI-AIMH). But that doesn’t mean young children don’t experience the winter blues.
What does seasonal affective disorder look like in children?
“Kids don’t necessarily have the language to say ‘I’m sad’ or ‘I’m anxious,’ so children — younger children especially — will show us how they feel,” Tutskey said.
She said this often comes in the form of behavioral changes, which can look like children being more irritable, sad, or tired, playing more aggressively, and showing changes in sleep or appetite.
Some children may also experience a regression in skills, Tutskey said. For example, a child who is toilet trained may have more accidents, or an older child who usually completes homework diligently may have trouble focusing.
Why do children experience seasonal affective disorder?
By the time a child leaves child care or gets off the school bus, the sun may already be setting, leaving little — if any — time to play outside with friends.
This playtime is a crucial part of development, offering the chance to build problem-solving and social-emotional skills. At the same time, they’re meeting a sensory need, Tutskey said, by running, jumping and roaming freely.
When this freedom is taken away by nasty weather, children attempt to migrate their enthusiasms indoors. For little Eleanor, this means using her mom, and her house, as an indoor jungle gym — something that takes a toll on Cussen’s furniture and patience.
But it goes beyond this newly limited space. Children are perceptive and have a tendency to mirror their parents’ or caregivers’ moods and behaviors, Finkbiner said. If the adults in a child’s life are weighed down by seasonal affective disorder, the child might also share in those grim feelings brought on by darkness, cold and bad weather.
“In that zero-to-5 developmental stage, children are often looking to their parents or other caregivers for their cues, and oftentimes, it’s the parents who are setting the emotional tone, the environmental tone, in the household,” Finkbiner said.
How can parents and caregivers help?
Adults can model how to acknowledge their emotions and respond to them in a healthy manner, while making clear their bad moods are not the child’s fault, explained Finkbiner and Corey Robak-Klein, a licensed marriage and family therapist who also works at WI-AIMH.
That might look like naming the feeling and reason behind the feeling. A parent could say to their kid, “Mommy’s been really tired today. It’s so hard when it’s cold outside,” Robak-Klein said, which can help give children the language to verbalize their feelings and better connect the dots.
If a child feels sad, angry or tired during this period, Robak-Klein and Finkbiner said, parents and caregivers can acknowledge those feelings, too, by telling them, “It’s OK to feel sad or angry or tired.” Validation is key, they agreed.
From there, focus on what can be done to feel better. Allow your child to choose from a set of fun — yet reasonable — activities, like singing a song, dancing or painting.
By addressing the winter blues in this way, you are building skills in your child that can last a lifetime, Robak-Klein said. But merely assuming the feelings will go away on their own can leave children feeling alone and confused about what they’re experiencing, she said.
“(In not addressing it), we are potentially missing some opportunity for some skill development to happen and for the co-regulation to happen, which is key in this period of time,” Robak-Klein said. “So (when you address it), you’re just building their brain for later on to be more and more resilient and buffer against depression or other mood disorders.”
It’s important for parents and caregivers to listen to their intuition, Robak-Klein emphasized. “If something seems weird or off, then that’s plenty good enough reason to reach out to ask the question and get support,” she said.
Seasonal affective disorder upends our routines, so finding a means of satisfying our sleep, nutrition and exercise needs can help, Robak-Klein stressed. That means getting outside and taking advantage of the limited sunlight as much as possible. If that’s not feasible, you can create an indoors obstacle course to satisfy that need for movement, Finkbiner suggested.
Cussen has big plans with Eleanor this winter, and it’s something Eleanor can get behind. They intend to make Elsa’s ice castle in the front yard, replete with snow turrets.
“Eleanor’s been ‘Frozen’-obsessed since before she could talk,” Cussen said. “I think that helps give her a language for this environment. Now that she’s a little bigger, we can do more hands-on play.”
It’s tempting, Cussen admitted, to sit in front of the TV and watch reruns of “Bluey.” But she noticed that too much screen time can lead to frenzied behaviors in Eleanor.
In small doses, such activity is fine, Tutskey said, but a good way to curb seasonal affective disorder while prioritizing your child’s needs is to connect. After a movie or tablet time, Tutskey suggests playing a board game, reading a book together or baking.
“Connections and relationships are really what help mood more than anything,” Tutskey said. “Feeling connected, feeling loved, feeling like you belong — those are things that help people when they don’t feel very good emotionally.”
At the end of the day, it’s about reminding little ones — and yourself —that the bad weather won’t last forever.
When do I need to consult a professional?
Tutskey said to seek help if, even with doing these steps, you still don’t see any change in mood.
Any time a child says something like “I wish I was dead” or talks about hurting themselves or others, adults need to take it seriously, Tutskey said, and ask follow-up questions to get to the meaning behind the statement.
“It’s important when kids say those things that we stay calm. We don’t want to shame them for feeling that way, and we also don’t want to scare them; we don’t want them to not tell us anymore,” she said. “Most of the time … they are just telling you ‘I’m frustrated, I’m struggling, I’m hurting,’ and when they don’t have the language and ability to do that, they are going to show us in much more dramatic ways.”
For those who need to seek help, your primary caregiver or school counselor could be a good place to start. If your child currently sees a therapist, update them on what’s going on.
If your child is in a more severe crisis, however, that may be the time to seek medical attention. Calling 988 will connect you to professional counselors at Family Services or a local community crisis center. If your child is actively exhibiting self-harm or suicidal ideation, it may be time to visit the emergency department.
Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at email@example.com or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.
Madison Lammert covers child care and early education across Wisconsin as a Report for America corps member based at The Appleton Post-Crescent. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 920-993-7108. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to Report for America.