Warning Signs of Depression in Children and Adolescents

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We know that depression affects everyone, even the old and the young. But, it can be very difficult to know how a young person is feeling, especially when they don’t even know how to describe what they’re experiencing. Young children don’t have the words to describe their emotions to adults. Sometimes teenagers feel like they are alone in their depression or don’t know how to ask for help. So, how can you, as a parent, tell if your child may be struggling?

First let’s learn a little about how a professional diagnoses depression. The diagnosis of depression is made by a doctor or therapist when a child or teen feels down or stops enjoying activities for a period of at least two weeks and the symptoms are bad enough to affect their ability to function. They also have at least 4 other symptoms such as sleeping more or less than usual, eating more or less than usual, loss of concentration and feeling overly guilty about things. They may have decreased energy and sometimes other people even notice that they move slower than usual. Unfortunately, many people with depression also have suicidal thoughts and may even make plans to take their own lives. Kids with depression can also have other scary symptoms like hallucinations or confusion about what is real.

There is also another type of depression that many people don’t know about. It is called dysthymia. When a child or teenager has dysthymia, they are depressed or irritable for more days than not for at least a 1 year period of time. They also have at least 2 other symptoms of depression such as changes in appetite, sleep or energy. Kids with this type of depression usually have milder symptoms in general, but it can be just as worrisome because they feel rather lousy for a long time. It can affect their grades, sports, relationships and keep them from doing things they might enjoy.

A great deal of research has been done to help us know who may be at risk for developing depression. Researchers have found that in childhood, boys and girls are about equally at risk for depression. Among teenagers, girls are around twice as likely to develop depression as boys. In total, about 2% of children and between 4% and 8% of teenagers are depressed. The statistics for dysthymia are very similar. We also know that people are more likely to have depression if there is a family history of depression or any history of traumatic events like physical or sexual abuse. Often the symptoms begin after a major stressor like the ending of a relationship or loss of a loved one.

So, occasionally kids ask for help when they are feeling depressed. But, in general we rely on parents to recognize when depression may be affecting their child. It’s important to know what to look for because sometimes depression can look different in children and adolescents than in adults. Like adults, kids will sometimes be more tearful or appear sad. They may talk about feeling hopeless or you may frequently hear statements such as “why bother?” and “who cares?” It is also very common to hear depressed kids complain that they’re bored because they are unable to find anything pleasurable.

But, depressed kids do not always look depressed. You should also be aware of your child being more irritable than usual. A depressed child is frequently more angry or hostile. They may also be more sensitive to criticism or rejection. You may even notice them spending more time alone when before they would play with friends. Of course, you should always be aware of dropping grades or frequent absences from school. Parents can also ask teachers if they have noticed any changes in behavior or performance.

If you feel that your child may be depressed, it is important to have them evaluated by a health professional. There are treatments available that are proven to help. Most primary care physicians are trained in the basic treatments for depression. They may refer your child to a child psychiatrist for additional help. Finding a therapist is also very helpful and your primary physician or psychiatrist can help with this too.

If you have any concern about your child’s safety, if they’re making statements about death or wanting to die or if they are making threats to harm someone else, please call 911 or take them immediately to the emergency room. These are serious symptoms of depression that should be treated urgently. It is always better to be overly cautious and have them evaluated than to risk anything bad happening to them or someone else.

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