Seasonal Health Disorder—A Guide for Parents

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People of all ages experience the winter blues. This common feeling of melancholy and resentment can stem from waking up when it’s still dark outside, having fewer hours of daylight to enjoy, and going to bed earlier because it gets dark earlier. Seasonal health disorder, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is similar to the winter blues but more serious—it is a depressive disorder that has a seasonal pattern.

Although the exact cause of seasonal health disorder is unknown, many experts believe it occurs when the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) is disrupted. The circadian rhythm regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle, which repeats approximately every 24 hours. Because the body is naturally wired to sleep when it’s dark outside and stay awake when it’s light outside, a change in sunlight exposure can alter the cycle.

In addition to having a detrimental effect on an individual’s ability to sleep and function properly, an irregular circadian rhythm can lead to health problems and mood disorders, such as seasonal health disorder. In many cases, the symptoms become apparent during the winter months, when the days are dark and cold. Then, the symptoms taper off in the spring, when the days start to get sunny and warm.

Do Children Get SAD?

Seasonal health disorder is better recognized in adults, mainly because many mental health issues tend to develop gradually over time, and therefore the diagnostic process can be long, drawn-out, and complex. With that said, children and adolescents are not immune to SAD, even though they may be at lower risk.

For a child, the weeks leading up to and including the holidays can be truly magical, with all of the lights, music, decorations, festivities, and presents. But just like adults, children can experience feelings of loss, sadness, and disappointment at that time—especially as the celebrations begin to wind down. What’s more, the ramped-up expectations of the season can intensify the effects of any stressful experiences, such as the illness or death of a family member, a divorce, or the loss of a parent’s job. And children can be especially sensitive to feeling different from their friends, which can become painfully apparent as their peers document their experiences in detail on social media.

Recognizing SAD in a Child

The signs of seasonal health disorder can be similar to the signs of general depression; the difference is that in the case of the former, the signs are apparent only during a certain time of year (usually the winter). In a child, some red flags include:

  • A marked shift in mood or behavior
  • Overwhelming sadness
  • Irritability that is out of character
  • A significant change in sleep patterns
  • Eating much more or much less than usual
  • Craving high-carbohydrate comfort foods
  • Low energy
  • Weight gain
  • Loss of interest in activities he or she once enjoyed
  • Withdrawing from family members and friends
  • Feelings of hopelessness

If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, you can encourage him or her to talk by sharing a neutral observation, such as, “I’ve noticed that you’re spending a lot of time in your room lately, are you feeling sad?” When prompted, many children will communicate their feelings verbally.

Also, be sure to reach out to a medical professional for guidance. A child who is diagnosed with general depression will likely be referred for treatment that will improve his or her symptoms. However, if the seasonal aspect of the depression is not recognized, the child may miss out on some potentially beneficial therapies.

Helping Your Child Thrive in the Winter & Beyond

Regardless of whether your child is exhibiting signs of seasonal health disorder, there are steps you can take to boost his or her mental health—as well as the wellness of your entire family. First, try to establish and maintain set times for waking up, eating meals, and going to bed. Routines help children feel safe, develop positive habits, and learn essential life skills.

Second, encourage everyone in your family to get outside and exercise for at least 30 minutes per day. Regular physical activity can help reduce stress, instill feelings of well-being, and promote physical fitness. Plus, the additional sunlight exposure can help stave off SAD.

Finally, you can help create and strengthen bonds between your family members by planning enjoyable activities that everyone can participate in. This is a great way to help your family thrive during the winter and stay happy and healthy throughout the rest of the year.

Your Home Healthcare Partner

In addition to protecting your child’s mental health, you’ll want to take steps to protect his or her physical health as well. Sometimes, it might seem like your child is getting one cold after another, especially during the winter. And a viral infection can cause a host of symptoms that can make traveling to a doctor’s office downright difficult for both you and your child.

In these situations, DispatchHealth has your back. We offer practical in-home diagnostic and treatment services for many non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries—and we’ll come to you. We treat everything an urgent care center can treat, and more. This means you can say goodbye to germy and uncomfortable waiting rooms. Instead, you can rest comfortably at home while you wait for our mobile care team to arrive.

Contact DispatchHealth to request care at your home today. Our experienced medical team will be there in just a few hours!

For life-threatening and time-sensitive injuries and illnesses, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. DispatchHealth shouldn’t be used in a life-threatening emergency and doesn’t replace a primary care provider.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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