My teenage son tends to get the winter blues. He’s been reading up on it and thinks he has seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Should I worry?

Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Clinical Psychologist

Dear correspondent,

Sadly, this is the time of year when patient after patient begins to talk about the winter blues, and I’ve had the opportunity to correspond about it before. Certainly, there are those who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as Major Depression with Seasonal Pattern—and if your son is experiencing suicidal feelings, hopelessness, and difficulty functioning, then please seek help immediately. 

But if he is simply bored, under the weather and misses the long days with lots of light, then I can help you now. I’m speaking to people of all ages who start to feel blue when the sun begins to set earlier and days and nights begin to blend. We lose the ability to go for a run or even a walk after work because it gets dark so early. We are less likely to venture out after 4:30 PM because it is dark and it seems as if it is time to give up the day. We feel robbed of many hours of the day that were available to us just days or weeks earlier.

The coupling of the winter blues and Covid concerns is certainly not a happy one. So let’s focus on what he can do during the coming months. Perhaps we can flip the script a bit and help him maybe even start to look forward to this time of year. Okay, that may be a stretch but I am trying hard to look at things in a positive manner and hope you will be inclined to do the same.

1. Be proactive. Help him brainstorm about some daily activities to look forward to. We all need things to look forward to on a daily basis. Perhaps your son can consider going for a daily walk early in the morning while it is still light out. Do you have a dog, by any chance? Taking the dog for a walk might just get him outside, and a furry companion is almost always good. This can be both his private time and maybe even his escape time. He could listen to a podcast, an audiobook, or maybe just breathe and get ready for his day. This is certainly a different and more uplifting start to the day. 

2. Help him develop a tight and very structured routine. Let’s face it: We all do better with structure. It gives us a sense of control and during these times, we all need that, yes? Try to have family dinners at least 5 or 6 times a week as a sort of anchoring ritual, perhaps inviting him to play cards or a board game with you afterward or to binge-watch a Netflix show together. He may decline, but it’s a low-stress, fun way to talk and spend more social time together.

Perhaps your son might also incorporate the Premack Principle into his daily routine. I use this all the time and it really helps. The principle is about rewarding yourself for getting an aversive task accomplished by rewarding yourself with a more desirable activity. I might, for example, repot my plants (an undesirable activity) and follow up by calling a fun friend (a more desirable activity). Your son might exercise for half an hour and then have a delicious cup of your hot chocolate. The list is endless. Be creative.

3. Consider this to be a time of year when your son may have more time for alternative activities. Exercise may look different during this time of the year. Think about getting some free weights since there’s less available time to run, walk, or go cycling outside; teens often like the idea of a short weight-lifting session. Or, if he likes company, you might sign him up at a fitness gym; the bright lights and music might lift his mood.

This may also be a time of year for him to upload all of those books that he has been meaning to read, or catch up on all of those TV series that his friends are always talking about. Could you persuade your son to cook dinner for the family once a week? He may complain, but he may secretly like the feeling of being needed (plus the fun he may have surprising you with his creation).

4. Take a short trip. It might be to a forest, beach or even a zoo you once went to togeher. Consider visiting a place you all had a lot of fun at when your son was young. Take turns sharing memories about it in the car. If you have photos, it’s sometimes fun to recreate one in the same pose – 10 years later.

5. Encourage him to reach out to friends and family: Tell him to let his grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles and other family know he is thinking of them (and conversely, ask them to get in touch with him.) Arrange a group Zoom party if everyone is long-distance. Host some potluck get-togethers. See whether he’d like a friend to come visit. His support system is so important. Help him take especially good care of it during this time of year. This is a win-win.