Get kids moving to help out!
Masked behind the costumes of Halloween, the cheerfulness of Thanksgiving, and the excitement of the December holidays, many children experience a transformation that makes them irritable, hungry, fatigued, and despondent. Brought on by changes in daylight, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common occurrence in regions with distinct seasons and shorter winter days.
Generally thought of as an adult disorder in which onset often begins in adolescence, SAD is thought to be caused by changes in the body’s production of serotonin and melanin. Interestingly, pilot studies reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that between 1.7 and 5.5 percent of children between the ages of 9 and 19 experience the disorder, and there appears to be a higher prevalence among girls.
Norman Rosenthal, the Maryland psychiatrist who first described the cluster of symptoms now called SAD, lists the following as common complaints among children with this disorder:
Primary Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms
- School difficulties
- Sleep changes
Secondary SAD Symptoms
- Increased appetite
- Carbohydrate craving
- Weight gain
In helping professionals differentiate SAD from other types of childhood depression, psychiatrists note that children with SAD react differently to rejection and that their symptoms are seasonally episodic. However, they caution, that SAD can mimic school stress because it overlies the school year, and its existence is often missed.
One of the easiest and least obtrusive solutions to helping children with SAD is to light classrooms and indoor play areas with “daylight bulbs.” Known as “full spectrum” lighting, these bulbs emit a bluish-white light which equals the brightness values of daylight. An added feature is its strong capabilities for rendering color. Full spectrum lighting can be found in specialty lighting stores, and some hardware stores, or ordered off the internet from companies such as TopBulb. While they may cost a bit more than standard fluorescent tubes, full spectrum lighting is thought to be helpful to the general population as well as to SAD sufferers.
Another remedy, commonly known as “phototherapy,” involves placing the child either in the back or in front of a “lightbox” twice a day, morning and evening. Light is measured in “lux” and these boxes contain full spectrum bulbs emitting 10,000 lux. SAD experts recommend beginning phototherapy with a single, daily session lasting 10 to 15 minutes. Time is gradually increased until the session lasts 30 to 45 minutes. For those with more resistant SAD, twice daily may be recommended. Since phototherapy is considered a medical treatment, those caring for children should NOT do this without parents’ permission and/or a doctor’s order, and there needs to be a clear understanding of where the child is to be placed.
For children prescribed “Light Box Time,” the treatment periods offer an opportunity for adults to engage in cooperative play. Interactive sedentary activities such as board games, cards, puzzles, art, dolls, and building sets help time pass faster and give quality to a mundane obligation.
SAD is believed to be caused by shorter days and weaker sunlight, so children benefit from outside play on sunny days. Because they tend to be lethargic, children suffering from SAD should be encouraged to participate in games that involve physical activity. For those looking for ideas, the book Physical Activities for Improving Children’s Learning and Behavior by Billye Ann Cheatum and Allison A. Hammond is helpful.
Since many SAD children object to exercise, dancing is an alternative.
Hip Hop often catches their interest, and with dance-oriented television shows, children are expressing interest in salsa, modern, and ballroom. Clogging, square dancing, line dancing, and folk dancing also capture their attention.
Exercising videos designed for children is another suggestion for stimulating physical movement. For others, Pilates or yoga may pique their curiosity since they outwardly appear passive. Year-long swimming offers fun for many children, and their weightlessness in the water enables them to forget about their lethargy.
Childhood obesity is an epidemic, and many children with SAD crave junk food. Moreover, the parents of many of these children suffer from the same condition. Working with parents so they understand the seriousness of their role in providing proper nutrition for themselves as well as their families is a necessary challenge for those working with children.
Three online resources with recipe ideas include:
Other resources include local health departments and state agricultural and homemaker extension service agents who visit one-on-one with families either in their homes or in clinic settings. Their services are usually free, and their ideas are creative and fun.
For children sensitive to the changing light, SAD has begun. Because their excitement about the holidays masks the disorder, child professionals are often surprised to find children who appeared to be progressing during the fall semester backslide in the weeks following the December holidays.
Childhood depression, whether it manifests itself in SAD or another type, is serious, and early intervention can be the key to a quality life. Furthermore, many children with depression live with parents who have it too. Research shows that children of depressed parents have a likelihood of developing oppositional defiant behaviors which gets them labeled as “disrespectful,” “sassy,” “bullying,” and “stubborn.” Professionals who remain aware that children with depression behave differently than adults with depression do their young charges a great favor by asking parents to have a mental health professional evaluate their children.