Long winter’s night

I don’t know what has come over my daughter. Over the summer, she seemed very happy, going out with her friends to the park, riding her bike everywhere; she was so full of life I had trouble getting her to bed at night. Now, all she wants to do is sleep. She has no energy or interest in doing anything beyond a minimum amount of school work. When she stopped texting with her friends, I started to really worry. I know teenagers are moody, but I think something else is going on.

The teenage years are a perfect storm of hormones and independence. It’s true that many parents don’t recognize their once-perfect child in their now out-of-control teen, but I don’t think that is what’s going on with your daughter. With her change of behavior pivoting at the beginning of the school year, and with the attendant sleepiness, lack of interest, and isolation, I believe your daughter may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that occurs around the same time — and season — each year. Some people experience what is called summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, but the majority experience fall-onset. The fall season ushers in many things: chillier weather, changing leaves, a new school calendar, but it also means fewer daylight hours and less sunshine. Exposure to the sun helps the body produce a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which helps regulate mood. Less sunlight often impacts serotonin levels, and fatigue and depression may ensue. Teens with a family history of depression may be more susceptible.

Some teens may experience the disorder with minor symptoms, such as increased irritability or just feeling a little out of sorts, but others experience more extreme symptoms, such as consistent fatigue, inability to concentrate, or problems with relationships. Regardless of the severity of symptoms, if it is negatively impacting your teen’s life, I recommend that you speak with her doctor.

Treatments vary, and different techniques may be tried until your daughter finds relief. However, it is recommended that all people with seasonal affective disorder try to get outside during the day as often as possible; try to eat a balanced, healthy diet; and get at least an hour of exercise a day.

A popular treatment is light therapy. Light therapy entails sitting a few feet away from a special bright light, which is about 20 times brighter than standard room lighting. Each sitting session slowly increases in time until the depressive symptoms begin to dissipate. For some, the change comes within a few days; for others, it might take longer, or sessions may need to be increased in frequency. For especially unyielding cases, light therapy may be fortified with anti-depressants. Once the mood is stabilized, the therapy continues until the season naturally brings more hours of sunlight.

One of the key characteristics of seasonal affective disorder is its appearance each fall — but that also means that with each spring, it dissipates. Talk to your daughter; let her know you are there for her. And have her evaluated for seasonal affective disorder. It may recur each year, but at least she will have the tools to treat it, and your love to support her as she does so.

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