The winter blues are real. That’s been confirmed by science. The official name for them is Seasonal Affective Disorder. The bad news is that they can affect anybody at any stage in their life. That includes children. The good news is that there are strategies you can use to prevent, recognize and deal with them. Here are some tips to help.
When people use the term SAD, they are generally referring specifically to Fall and Winter SAD. Spring and Summer SAD does exist but is extremely rare. As the name suggests, SAD is essentially a form of depression triggered by the change in seasons. It generally begins as days get shorter and eases as they lengthen again.
The symptoms of SAD are similar to the symptoms of regular depression. Two of the most common ones include tiredness and a craving for comfort food. These can lead to children oversleeping and putting on weight. The lack of sleep can lead to other issues such as lack of focus. These tend to become particularly noticeable in homeschooling sessions.
For clarity, children (and adults) can exhibit these behaviors for a variety of reasons. It’s therefore vital that you resist the temptation to jump to conclusions about what any given behavior means. Just note it and investigate it.
Preparing yourself for the darker months
At the risk of stating the obvious, make sure your home, yard, and car are well prepared for winter. If you don’t have a home warranty, then consider getting one. Taking care of this preparation work will lighten the load as late fall and winter really set in. This will reduce the likelihood of you becoming overworked, stressed, and possibly ill.
You can certainly involve your children in these preparations. In fact, they can make for great lessons. Possibly more importantly, it can give you an opportunity to talk to them about fall and winter. This is your chance to tell/remind them what they can expect. Their feedback should give you a baseline idea about how they are currently feeling about fall and winter.
While you’re preparing your home and yard, remember to prepare yourself too. Even without SAD, late fall through early spring can be a tough time for anyone. Think about how you’re going to adapt your self-care to protect your mind and body. In particular, think about how you’re going to make sure you get enough healthy nourishment to ward off winter bugs.
Preparing your children for the darker months
Routine matters all year round but when the dark months set in its importance really goes up. In particular, you need to establish a robust sleep routine. To do this, start by checking their bedroom(s). Make sure that there’s nothing getting in the way of your children getting a good night’s sleep.
Ideally, do these checks at different times of day or night and keep doing them over the darker months. In particular, try to do them when your children are (or should be) asleep. This is because you may notice different issues at different times. For example, you may need to go in at night to spot light pollution from artificial lights (e.g. Christmas lights).
Sad as this may sound, you may also want to spot-check whether or not your children are really sticking to rules on screen time. Remember that entertainment producers of all kinds do tend to up their game over the winter season, especially over the holiday period. If your children seem inexplicably tired it could simply be because they’ve been sneaking in some extra screen time.
On a similar note, it’s advisable to keep a particularly close eye on your children’s diet over the winter season. Again, this is the time when “treat foods” are everywhere. You may find yourself thinking that your child is only enjoying them in moderation. In actual fact, however, your children may be getting a lot more “treats” than you realize, possibly from well-meaning adults.
Keeping your children outdoors
You’re probably already well aware that it’s important to make sure that your children still get plenty of exercise over the winter months. In fact, you’ll probably be keen to give them plenty of opportunities to work off their energy in a safe and controlled way.
What you may not have realized, however, is that outdoor play specifically has a lot of additional benefits compared to indoor play. Children literally get properly fresh air into their lungs. They also get exposure to natural light. Just remember, effective sun protection is still a must.
Furthermore, the fact of being outdoors often provides a lot more stimulation for them than indoor environments. If nothing else, the outdoors tends to change more often. Even if the weather and landscape are much the same, there will almost always be something new going on. If nothing else, nature will still be busy going about its business.
Getting your children journaling
Journaling has the same benefits for children as it does for adults. Younger children will, however, probably need some guidance to help them get started. Depending on the age of your children, journaling may need to be an exercise you do together.
For example, if they’re very young you may need to ask them questions verbally and note their responses for them. If they’re a bit older, they may still need help with writing themselves and using trackers effectively. Remember that children, especially young ones, may not be the best at explaining their feelings so you may have to probe carefully.
As a parent, your children’s journals can help you be more effective at keeping track of their general health and wellness. Over time, they can help you to build up a pattern of your children’s lifestyle and their mental state. This makes it a lot easier to spot trends and, hence, deviations from the trend.
Dealing with the signs of SAD
If you spot the signs of SAD, note them, but keep an open mind to begin with. Check your children’s sleeping, eating, and exercise habits. Make sure that they really have been what you think they’ve been. If this checks out (or once you’ve corrected it), watch your children for a few days to see if the situation improves.
If symptoms continue, however, (or if they’re really severe), then it’s time to make an appointment with a doctor. If your children are given a diagnosis of SAD, then your doctor may recommend one or more of three standard treatments for them. Standard treatments for SAD are light therapy, talking therapy, and medicine, usually in that order, especially for children.
Whatever course of treatment is prescribed for your children. It’s important that you understand it and that you’re a part of it. In particular, you’ll need to support them through it. To begin with, you’re probably going to have to take the lead in helping your children to understand what is happening to them.
Even if you’ve spoken about SAD before, your children may not have made the connection between your explanation and their experience. You’ll need to provide constant reassurance that their experience is normal and can be resolved. At the same time, however, you’ll need to be realistic about the length of time it can take to improve the symptoms of SAD.
SAD is a complex condition. Some children (and adults) do “snap out of it”. For many people, however, SAD doesn’t go away, it just becomes manageable. While your children (and your doctor) are working out what they need to do to manage it, you will need to provide them with practical and emotional support. This will generally require a lot of patience.
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