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Holidays Are a Happy Time -- Then Why is My Teen So Sad?

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Winter Blues Can Mean Holiday Blues

Teen Depression & Teen Seasonal Affective Disorder: Similarities & Subtle Differences

Makayla has always been a gifted student and a talented teen athlete. By the end of her sophomore year, her GPA was a 4.00 -- something to be proud of for sure. She was active in student government, played on the volleyball team, and loved to spend time with her friends.

The start of her Junior year seemed just as promising. She was maintaining her grades, enjoyed her activity in different student organizations, and was excited for the upcoming volleyball season. She was happy to be back with her friends that she hadn't seen over the long, long, 'pandemic summer'.

Starting in the fall, Makayla started feeling out of sort. She found that she needed more sleep to function at the level she is capable of. Even with more sleep, she still found herself sluggish, her motivation had decreased, and she had a hard time concentrating in school. She found herself moody irritable, and feeling depressed. As her parent, you noticed that she was not hanging out with her friends as often as before.

Throughout the fall and winter months, Makayla battled these challenges. She continued to feel sluggish, found it difficult to concentrate in school, and fought to motivate herself to achieve how she would like to. The moodiness, irritability, and teen depression continued throughout the winter.

Come Spring, Makayla found that her mood had started to improve. She noticed that her motivation had increased. She started to enjoy school more often as she found that she could concentrate better and as a result, good grades came much easier. Her irritability had decreased and she found it easier to be happy. As a parent, you noticed that she was spending more and more time with her friends.

By the end of the school year, Makayla had earned a 4.00 again. She enjoyed her volleyball season, was active in her student activities, and life seemed back to normal for Makayla. As a parent, it would seem the crisis is over and we chalk it up to a teen phase or teen angst. Yet, there may be more Makayla's experience than we may think.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder & How is it Caused?

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Seasonal Sadness Can Be Helped

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is also referred to as the "winter blues". SAD usually manifests in people in late fall or early winter. This is referred to as "winter-pattern SAD". There are some who may also experience SAD during Spring and Summer. This is also referred to as "summer-pattern SAD".

There are studies that show that the amount of direct sunlight one receives can impact the production of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps in mood regulation. When the fall or winter months hit and there is less light, in some teens, the brain may not regulate serotonin appropriately. This can cause symptoms of SAD.

Melatonin is a neurotransmitter created by the pineal gland and plays a role in sleep. There are studies that show that in some people, during the fall and winter months, they may produce too much melatonin. Too much melatonin can cause a person to feel drowsy or sleepy. This too can impact one's mood, focus, concentration, and more.

What are the Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD and teen depression share many of the same symptoms. There are teens who start teen therapy for teen depression during fall and winter months who don't typically experience teen depression. The difference with between a teen depression diagnosis and a diagnosis of SAD is the seasonality. Teen depression does not wax and wane with the fall and winter months and remains fairly constant. SAD rears it's ugly head in the fall/winter or spring/summer months and once the season has passed, the symptoms seem to disappear.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the symptoms of SAD may include the following:

Symptoms of Teen Depression

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day

  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight

  • Having problems with sleep

  • Feeling sluggish or agitated

  • Having low energy

  • Feeling hopeless or worthless

  • Having difficulty concentrating

  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Winter-Pattern SAD, Additional Specific Symptoms May Include:

  • Oversleeping (hypersomnia)

  • Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates

  • Weight gain

  • Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)

Specific Symptoms for Summer-Pattern SAD May Include:

  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)

  • Poor appetite, leading to weight loss

  • Restlessness and agitation

  • Teen anxiety

  • Episodes of agitated, aggressive behavior

How Are SAD & Teen Depression Treated:

5 Effective Treatments

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There Are Answers. There is Hope. There Can Be Happiness Again.

There are various and effective ways in treating teen depression in SAD. There is usually no one 'silver bullet' approach in treating teen depression or SAD. As specialists in teen therapy and family counseling, we have found a combination of approaches working best.

The following are five treatments in helping to combat the winter blues and/or teen depression:

1. Vitamin D (For SAD)

Direct exposure to sunlight helps to create vitamin D in our bodies. vitamin D has been shown by some studies to help regulate and improve mood.

During the winter months when there is less direct exposure to sunlight, vitamin D supplements may help. To determine whether this would be an effective treatment for your teen, please consult with your medical doctor.

2. Light Therapy (For SAD)

Another treatment for teen depression in SAD that has shown to be effective is the use of light therapy. There are many options to choose from in purchasing a lamp for light therapy. You can go on and find a lot of options. The one key element in purchasing a light lamp is to ensure that it produces at least 10,000 lux of light.

For light therapy, it is suggested that a teen sit approximately 24" in front of the lamp for 30-45 minutes a day, usually each morning. The light is perfectly safe and filters out any harmful UV rays that the sun would naturally produce.

3. Talk Therapy for Teens (For SAD & Teen Depression)

There are times when a teen who believes they may have SAD are actually struggling with something entirely different. A teen may have had a traumatic event occur during their life in the fall or winter seasons. The teen trauma event could be a significant life event. Yet, the traumatic event does not need to be a significant, noticeable event, just an event that causes the emotional system to be overwhelmed. The following are examples of some teen trauma events:

  • Being bullied

  • Being rejected by a peer group

  • Being rejected by a boyfriend/girlfriend

  • Struggling or over stressed in school and fear of failure

  • Losing a pet

  • Losing a loved one

  • Being in a non-life threatening accident

  • A family member or other close person to the teen being in a non-life-threatening accident

The fall or winter months could act as a trigger for the teen if they experienced the traumatic events during the fall or winter. It may seem that after the event, the teen has recovered and are back to their old selves. Yet, fall and winter come again and they find themselves experiencing symptoms of teen depression related to SAD.

Teen therapy can help the teen fully resolve the triggers around the traumatic events. Once these triggers have been resolved, the teen may no longer experience symptoms of SAD during the fall or winter months. A teen counselor can also help the teen and parents navigate this tricky journey and can provide resources and tools to guide the teen back to feeling happy and content.

4. Family Therapy (For SAD & Teen Depression)

When teen therapy is appropriate to help a teen through teen depression during the fall and winter months, another element is also important to add to teen counseling.

An element of the teen's success when the teen is participating in teen therapy is family counseling. During teen therapy, the teen therapist and the teen identify causal factors of the teen depression. They work on skills and practices that can help the teen overcome the teen depression. At some point in teen counseling, it is important to start family therapy.

Family therapy can help provide the wrap around support the teen needs after completing teen therapy for depression. For the parents to be included in the growth and progress of the teen can help the teen long after teen counseling has ended.

It is important for the parents to understand the underpinnings and mechanisms of the teen's depression. It is also important for the parents to know the skills and tools the teen has been taught. This way, when the therapist is no longer needed, the parents and the teen can work together to maintain the positive changes.

5. Medication (For SAD & Teen Depression)

If all else has failed OR the symptoms are intolerable or severe, antidepressant medication can help. Antidepressant medications work on those neurotransmitters that the lack of sunlight may impact. An antidepressant will help the brain regulate serotonin and other neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation, a sense of wellbeing, and happiness.

Should you choose to go the medication route to treat teen depression or teen SAD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist would be your best route. Should the psychiatrist not have an appointment available soon enough, you can also see your teen's pediatrician or family doctor.

Katy Teen & Family Counseling:

Creating Happy Holidays

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Have a Happy Thanksgiving & a Merry Christmas This & Every Year

The fall and winter months do not have to be times of struggle. Thanksgiving and Christmas should be enjoyable, magical times in a teen's life. There are answers to why your teen may be struggling with teen depression, teen anxiety, or other emotional or behavioral challenges this time of year. If you have noticed a seasonal change in your teen's mood, it may be related to Seasonal Affective Disorder.

If you are concerned that your teen is struggling, Katy Teen & Family Counseling can help. We have teen therapists who specialize in working with teens and families. Let us help your teen and family resolve the winter blues. If you are interested in starting this journey, all you need to do is follow three simple steps:

1. Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling

2. Speak with our caring teen therapy specialists.

3. Begin your journey of healing to help restore hope, happiness, & connected family relationships.

Other Family Therapy and Teen Counseling Services Provided at Katy Teen & Family Counseling

At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we not only help with teen depression and teen SAD, we also provide other teen counseling and family therapy services: 

We know the Holiday months are very busy for the families in the Katy, Texas and Houston area. We provide flexible hours to meet the busy demands during your Holiday season.

If your teen is experiencing teen depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder, we can help. Our roots at Katy Teen & Family Counseling reach back as far as 2003. Jason Drake, LCSW-S, EMDR Trained, Neurofeedback Professional, has been providing teen counseling and family therapy since 2003. He is a specialist in family counseling and teen therapy. He hires those therapists who also specialize in working with teens. ​

How to Begin Teen Therapy or Family Counseling

To begin teen therapy or family counseling, simply contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling through our website or by calling 346-202-4662. Our Owner and Lead Clinician answers each phone call to help match you with the right therapist for you teen and family.

About the Author

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Jason Drake is a Licensed Clinical Worker. He is a Specialist in Teen Therapy & Family Counseling. He has provided therapy to teens and families since 2003. Through his expertise, he helps teens who struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD/ADD, and PTSD. He works with talented teen athletes who have experience mental blocks. Gifted students have unique challenges that Jason understands well. Jason uses CBT, EMDR, Neurofeedback, FFT, and Motivational Interviewing. We only work with teens and families which allows us to focus on what teens and families of today need. Resolving the struggles of today can assure a more successful tomorrow. Proudly serving Katy, Tx and Houston.

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