7 Ways You and Your Teen Can Fight Off Winter Sadness
I'm worried about my 15 year-old. Since mid-November, she has been down and just not her usual happy-go-lucky self. She usually loves hanging out with friends, going for walks and, well, doing stuff. Now I often find her wrapped in a blanket, reading a book or watching TV. I'm worried she is depressed but she says she isn't. She said she just feels like "hibernating". What can I do to help her?
Traci, mom of 2
Thanks for your question. Let’s face it, if your teen’s mood seems to match the weather outside, a bit cold and dark, she is not alone.
When the days get shorter and colder, many people - including teens - struggle with sadness and seasonal depression For some it’s a sense of melancholy; for others, it’s a bit more like the winter blues; and, for at least six percent of the US population, it is Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD - yes, the acronym is actually SAD - is a type of depression that is related to the amount of sunlight a person receives. It generally kicks in as the hours of daylight get shorter and can last till early spring. (4-6% of the US population - including me - gets summer-onet SAD.) SAD impacts millions of people each year. Children and adolescents can also be affected by SAD, and, while the presenting symptoms can be different, dealing with SAD is no less difficult for children.
Girls are more likely than boys to have SAD (although boys can get SAD too.) The risk of SAD is higher for teens who have a close relative with depression or other mood disorders. If these risk factors affect your teen, please raise your awareness to any changes in mood and behavior in the late fall and winter season.
Here’s the tricky part - signs of SAD can be challenging to spot in teens because they are often misdiagnosed and, to be frank, teens are often moody Keep an eye out for significant changes in mood and behavior including: lack of motivation, increased irritability or aggressiveness, marked change with performance at school or with sports, decreased focus or concentration, indecisiveness, lack of engaging with friends, and changed eating habits. Teens with SAD may have trouble getting to sleep at night.
7 ways you and your teen can fight off winter weather blues:
- Get your teen involved. This is first and foremost. If you’re concerned about your teen’s moods or behavior, let her know. Make sure she knows that there’s nothing wrong with her and that she’s not in trouble. Offer real ways for her to get involved with managing her winter blues or SAD including letting her choose exercises to try or letting her decide ways to spend more time outside.
- Use light therapy, aka happy lights. Light therapy has been shown to be quite effective for helping with winter blues and SAD. With light therapy, you spend 15 minutes to 2 hours in front of a special light box that emits full-spectrum light similar in composition to sunlight. (I keep mine by my computer and use every morning.) You also may want to consider a dawn simulator alarm clock for your teen to help naturally wake to simulated light rather than with the blare of a beep when it’s still cold and dark out.
- Go outside. Exposure to outdoor light is still important so try to get your teen outside daily for at least 10 minutes. Yes, it’s cloudy and cold. However, light still peeks through clouds and gives your brain a much needed boost to serotonin and dopamine levels, aka the happy hormones.
- Provide healthy foods + supplements. Improve your diet, improve your mood, right? Ok, so this isn’t breaking news, but the reality is that crappy food leaves us with crappy thoughts, sleep and health. Offering alternatives to carb-laden snacks and meals - such as fresh fruit, veg and whole foods - can help boost both metabolism and mood. Additionally, a teen with SAD might consider taking supplements like Vitamin D and omega-3s in order to help change his or her mood. Unfortunately, I cannot vouch for the effectiveness of supplements so you’ll need to make your own choice.
- Get some exercise. Physical activity has proven itself time and again to not only relieve both depressive and anxious symptoms but to prevent depression. If your teen is showing signs of sadness and low mood, encourage him or her to exercise. Suggest a yoga class with her friends, do an online workout together or have a dance party in your family room. Aim for 30 minutes a day, 5 days per week. You and your teen will feel so much better if you move consistently.
- Sleep. Sleep may seem natural when it comes to your teen. However, many teens are either under or over sleeping. Help your teen learn to gauge their circadian rhythms by sticking to an 8 hour sleep schedule. Encourage her to have a consistent bedtime routine that includes no caffeine or screens after 9pm.
- Seek the support of a mental health provider. Just like any psychological illness getting the right treatment is essential. Therefore, it’s important to get assessed with a mental health professional Typical treatments for seasonal affective disorder include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and, if needed, medication such as an SSRI.
So, what can you do? A lot!
Now, I want to turn to you … how do you feel in the winter? Do you struggle with winter blues or seasonal affective disorder? If so, please share in the comments below, especially if you have any tips for lifting your mood. And, lastly, if you know someone who might benefit from this information, I’d be incredibly grateful if you’d pass it on.
With love, peace and happiness,
PS: If you’re looking for more ways to improve your relationship with your teen, you may want to consider our upcoming What to Do When coaching groups where we cover A-Z in having the relationship you want with your teen and the relationship your teen needs with you. Get all the deets here!