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Combating the Winter Blues

QUESTION: My 10-year-old daughter gets upset and crabby in the winter months. In the summer she is a happy child. But come October she flies off the handle at any little thing and cries easily. I have heard of winter blues. Is this a seasonal thing? What can I do to help her?

ANSWER: Your daughter may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder, or a milder version of the "blues" brought on by sensitivity to decreased sunlight. But do not stop short of evaluating other factors, such as academic challenges at school, social friendships, or other life stresses that she may be reacting to at this time.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, author of "Winter Blues" suggests that this disorder is caused by a combination of factors including shortened daylight, stress and genetic vulnerability. He estimates that up to 14 percent of the population experiences some depression as a result of decreased sunlight in the winter months.

Symptoms may be depression and lowered physical energy, often resulting in increased irritability, angry outbursts, and crying spells in some children. Others may respond with lethargy, a withdrawal from activities, and poor concentration.

Some scientists view this disorder as a product of a modern society that confines us indoors, in general, magnifying the normal ebbs and flows of biochemical changes that occur with the seasons, especially for those already vulnerable to stress.

The latest recommendation for treatment of this condition requires sitting under a light box that emits 5 to 10 thousand lux of ultra-violet filtered light for 40 minutes each morning. Hypothetically, the light reduces the levels of the neurochemical, melatonin, naturally awakening us from the sleep cycle as we get ready for our day's activities. It is thought that the body's balance of neurochemicals, especially melatonin levels that help regulate the sleep cycle, are disrupted for those suffering from seasonal affective disorder. And while most of us respond to artificial light, others do not, leaving their melatonin at high levels during their wake cycle.

Aside from ordering a light box (about $300.) there are several things you can do, if you feel your child is suffering from a lack of sunshine.

  1. Exercise
    Many parents have coined the term "cabin fever" to describe similar symptoms. Children are particularly sensitive to the need to burn off excess energy through physical activity and play. Keep your child physically active throughout the winter months. Indoor swimming, ice skating or sledding can be useful stress busters. Physical exercise may release hormones and neurochemicals that restore our body's balance!

  2. Get as much natural light as possible
    Arrange to have your child sit near a window to absorb natural light, while doing homework or other indoor activity.

  3. Reduce stress
    Keep schedules as simple as possible to avoid rushing. Down time is important for children. Structure relaxation into your child's day, with music, quiet time and plenty of rest.

  4. Regular sleep and a balanced diet
    Experts recommend keeping your sleep cycle as regular as possible and avoiding excess sugar and carbohydrates. (A good idea anyway!)
Help your daughter regulate her sleep cycle, and observe what calms her. Pacing her day can make a big difference in both of your lives!

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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