How to Tell if Your Child Shows Symptoms of Depression

Loss of Energy and Withdrawal May Signal a Problem

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If you think that your child is depressed, it is important to look carefully at your child's symptoms. Depression symptoms can sometimes appear differently in a child as opposed to an adult, so it can sometimes be tough to spot the signs. Knowing what to look for can help you spot the signs of this condition.

Symptoms to Look Out For

Symptoms of depression in children tend to be a bit different than those for adults. Where low mood and loss of pleasure are often the two primary symptoms in adults with depression, kids are often more likely to experience primary symptoms such as irritability and physical complaints.

Other symptoms of childhood depression include difficulty focusing and making decisions, extreme shyness, clinging to a parent, feeling hopeless, unexplained physical complaints, sleeping problems, appetite changes, and thoughts or actions of self-harm.

If you suspect that your child might be depressed, keep an eye out for the following signs:

Sadness

Children may become sad about many things such as lost relationships, school work, failures, missing out on something, loss of a friend, pet or loved one, or moving. Try to identify what your child is sad about and provide support. If symptoms of sadness improve or disappear after just a few days, they are probably not related to depression.

Depressed children may have a general sense of sadness about their life and their future, or they may not be able to identify what they are sad about. They may cry a lot or tear up frequently for no obvious reason. Feelings of sadness that last longer than two weeks are a reason to talk to your child's pediatrician.

Withdrawal from Friends and Family

Most children will change friends at some point and spend varying amounts of time with their parents. As children go through puberty, they naturally pull away from their families and begin to identify more with their peers. This is an important developmental step that should not be confused with social withdrawal.

Children who are depressed may dramatically pull away from friends, family, and others who they were once close to. They tend to keep to themselves and avoid interactions altogether. They may stop participating in class, social and extracurricular activities.

Losing Interest in Activities They Once Enjoyed

Your child may naturally lose interest in things he once loved, like a favorite toy or TV show, or suddenly declare he no longer wants to play with Legos. This is different from a child with depression. A depressed child has a hard time finding joy or excitement in anything. Your child may be indifferent to almost everything. Kids who are depressed often seem like they are just going through the motions without any joy or pleasure in what they are doing.

Feeling Misunderstood

Every child will feel misunderstood at some point in time. A depressed child may feel that there is no one who can understand their feelings or that it is pointless to even try to talk about them. Your child may fear trying new things, speaking out, or sharing ideas out of fear of rejection, misinterpretation, or ridicule.

Academic Decline

Again, children may have academic highs and lows over time. Remember that during times of transition to middle school or high school, course work may become more challenging.

A depressed child may have a significant decline in grades. Missing school, trouble paying attention, or simply failing to do work are all reasons for such declines in grades. This may be more apparent in a child who had been a high academic achiever in the past.

Lack of Energy

Everyone gets tired, especially after busy days, hard work, late nights, illnesses, and exercise, but a depressed child may seem to always lack energy and motivation.

Even after an appropriate amount of sleep, a depressed child may complain of being tired, move slowly, or take a disproportionate amount of time to complete a task.

Guilt

Feelings of excessive and unrelenting guilt are common in children with depressive disorders, such as major depressive disorder, depressive episodes in bipolar disorder, and dysthymia. A child with depression may blame herself for anything that goes wrong, even if it is out of her control.

Guilt can also contribute to other negative emotions, such as sadness, worthlessness, and hopelessness. If guilt seems to be worsening, lasts longer than two weeks, and is present with other signs of depression, parents should consult with a doctor or mental health professional.

Worthlessness

Children with depressive disorders may feel worthless frequently or for long periods of time, especially following a negative event. Children who suffer from worthlessness typically think they are weak, inadequate, or flawed. Children who feel worthless may believe that they are inherently bad and that everything they do is wrong. They may not put any effort into their schoolwork, engage in unstable relationships, or not even try to connect with others because they believe that their efforts will fail or cause additional problems.

Feelings of worthlessness or other symptoms of depression for more than a week or two may require treatment from your child's pediatrician or mental health provider.

Impulsivity and Aggression

For some depressed children and adolescents, their emotions may cause them to feel angry toward the people or things that they believe are the sources of their pain. This can lead to impulsive and aggressive reactions.

Impulsive behaviors are quick reactions to events (usually negative) without regard for consequences. Impulsive behaviors often, but do not always, lead to aggressive actions. Aggressive behaviors may be directed inward in the form of self-injury, or at someone or something else through angry outbursts, harassment, property damage, or violence.

Causes

Childhood depression is a complex condition that has many causes. A number of different factors can contribute to the onset of depression in kids. Depression affects many children; the CDC reports that 3.2% of kids between the ages of three and 17 have been diagnosed with depression.

Some of the risk factors that can contribute to childhood depression include:

  • Family history: Having close family members and relatives with depression increases the risk of experiencing childhood depression. One 30-year study found that those with the highest risk of depression were those with two previous generations of family members with depression.
  • Brain chemistry: Imbalances in certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine can play a role in causing depression
  • Stress: Life events such as moving and divorce can play a role in causing childhood depression
  • Environment: A chaotic or unstable home life can be a risk factor for depression, as can experiencing social isolation or bullying at school
  • Physical health: Some health conditions, particularly chronic illnesses such as diabetes, can increase the risk of experiencing childhood depression

How to Help

If you think that your child may be depressed, consult with your pediatrician, who can evaluate the symptoms, rule out an underlying medical illness, and recommend the appropriate treatment.

Here are a few things that you can do to help your child cope with feelings of depression:

Be aware of your child's moods. Watch for symptoms such as sadness, irritability, loss of pleasure, change of appetite, change of sleep habits, tiredness, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of death. Talk to a health professional if your child shows such signs.

Provide reassurance. Let your child know that depression is nothing to be ashamed of; depression is an illness just like the flu and getting the right treatment can help kids get better.

Encourage your child to talk about feelings. Give your child the right to have these feelings. Children can easily get the idea that it's not okay to feel depressed and start to hide their feelings rather than deal with them in a healthy way.

Teach your child it's okay to ask for help. Kids need to know that there will be help available when they need it. Give them a list of people they may talk to such as yourself, a teacher, or a counselor.

Never minimize your child's feelings. It may seem small to you, but what counts is how it feels to your child. Listen and be a source of support.

Watch your own behavior. Be aware of the impact your own responses to life are having on your child. Your child learns coping skills by watching you.

It can be difficult to know whether your child is depressed or having a mild reaction to a negative event, but you are not alone. Many parents struggle with understanding what their child is thinking and feeling. Fortunately, there are many ways to find support and treatment.

If your child or someone else you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

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