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The days are getting shorter and with the darker days, some people feel their mood getting darker, too. While some people thrive in the spirit of the cozy season, getting their hygge on, others find themselves feeling sad, withdrawn, or even depressed during the winter months—even children are not immune from the “winter blues.”
We spoke with Dr. Hansa Bhargava, chief medical officer at Medscape Education about what to do if your child seems more down than usual this winter.
The difference between winter blues, SAD, and depression
SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a condition that creates a feeling of depression associated with a season, usually but not always winter. Children can get SAD, but a diagnosis usually comes after symptoms have been occurring seasonally for at least two years. Depression, or Major Depressive Disorder, is another diagnosis, and is a persistent feeling of sadness or despair. Adults and children can all get depression, but sometimes we feel a little sad sometimes without it being full-blown depression.
If you think your child is feeling a bit down as the weather turns colder, they might have “winter blues,” a temporary and treatable phase.
Signs of the “blues”
In children, Bhargava says you’ll be more likely to notice physical symptoms than you would in adults. “Kids may have body symptoms such as headache or stomach pain more often than adults,” she says. In addition, kids “may not be interested in doing things they like.” Loss of interest in beloved activities is a sign of depression, so a brief loss of interest would make sense even if it’s a temporary case of the blues.
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It might also seem like they’re behaving poorly or being rude. “They may act out or have a short fuse. Older kids and teens may withdraw, spending more time in their room or on their phones, or their grades might be affected,” she says. You might attribute this to hormones or disrespect, but it could be that they are feeling sad.
Look out for routine changes as well. “Appetite can be affected, as can sleep,” Bhargave says. “If your child seems different from his or her baseline, winter blues might be the culprit.” You know your child better than anyone and can tell if something is off.
How to discuss the winter blues with your kids
The first thing to do if your child is acting or feeling different is to investigate. “It’s very important to try to talk to your kids,” Bhargave says. She suggests choosing a time when your child seems comfortable and more likely to open up about how they’re feeling—while you’re driving in the car, for example, or during dinner.
Approach them with curiosity, not solutions right off the bat. In the book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, the advice from authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is that you need to approach them with more of a “notice.” Say, in a neutral tone, “You seem to be spending more time in your room. What’s up with that?” Let them talk. Listen with only affirmative words to show you hear (“mmm hmm…OK.”) Then try to give their feelings a name. This is especially important for young kids with smaller vocabularies. Say, “It sounds like you’re feeling sadder than usual.” Again, no analysis here. From there, you can do a few things when it comes to managing winter blues, but, often, even your child knowing you are there for them will help considerably.
Keep consistent routines
Make sure your routines are consistent even when the seasons are not—sleep is an important part of this. Even if the daylight hours are different, Bhargava says to keep bedtimes the same throughout the year.
People’s diets often change during the winter months, too. While some seasonal variation is normal and eating seasonally is considered healthy, Bhargava says to watch for a decrease in foods that might contain vitamin D, such as salmon, yogurt, or oranges, and to continue incorporating those into your family’s meals. (Also, let me know how you got your kid to eat salmon.) Your pediatrician can let you know how to incorporate more vitamin D through diet or supplements—be sure to check with them before starting a new vitamin supplement as dosage will vary considerably based on the age and size of your child.
Since you’re no longer exercising outside as often when the weather is crummy, make a point to get some of that pent up energy out in other ways. Since exercise can help improve mood, moving your body can help keep you healthy both physically and mentally. Enroll in an indoor sport like basketball or martial arts or simply play “Floor Is Lava” in your living room on dark, rainy nights. Even a living room dance party can get your heart rate up and liven the mood.
If they’re still blue in spring
Sometimes the winter blues don’t melt with the snow. For most kids, the winter blues go away in the spring but, “if you are concerned or it is prolonged, reach out to your doctor,” Bhargava says. “If there is persistent sadness or you think your child isn’t well, reach out to your pediatrician or mental health professional” to figure out if this is something more than a simple case of winter-time blah feelings. It could be that your child is vitamin deficient, has another health issue, or might need some mental health support.
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