If you’ve noticed that your child or teenager seems to be angry more often or has developed a negative attitude recently, you might be wondering if they’re just going through normal growing pains. While some mood swings are normal as kids develop, childhood and adolescent depression are often left overlooked and untreated because it’s mistaken for a normal part of growing up.
Jefferson Center clinician Anna Schwenk weighed in on the subject to provide some insight into how you can identify the signs and symptoms of depression in preschoolers all the way to high school seniors and what you can do to help.
Can Kids Really Be Depressed?
One of the reasons that childhood depression is often glossed over is the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness. Many people assume that children cannot experience depression if they don’t have the same large-scale stressors that adults have to deal with like paying bills, going to work, and maintaining a household.
However, at any given time, it’s estimated that 5% of adolescents are dealing with depression, which can be caused by a variety of factors. Some children might be more at risk for developing these signs and symptoms if they have a pre-existing mental health condition, prior traumatic experiences, or instability at home.
Schwenk notes that the way your children display their emotions can also be very influential when determining risk factors for depression.
“Some kids externalize their emotions more while some kids internalize them,” she said. “For kids who externalize their emotions, they often need to be taught how to more appropriately express their feelings while with kids who internalize their emotions, we need to find a way for them to express their feelings and get the emotions out of their bodies.”
Signs and Symptoms of Depression in Kids K-12
Exhibiting temporary signs of distress is normal during stressful or scary events, but these feelings usually pass with time, and most children are able to move through challenging times with the support of family and friends. However, during events like a pandemic where there’s no clear end in sight and many elements of daily life are subject to constant change, some children might have difficulty adapting to change and processing their emotions. This has the potential to result in increased anxiety, feelings of depression, and even suicidal behaviors. Here are some of the signs and symptoms of anxiety in different age ranges:
Preschoolers: increased bedwetting, thumb sucking, difficulty sleeping, fear of the dark, clinging to parents, a significant change in behavior, and withdrawal.
Elementary Schoolers: nightmares, difficulty concentrating, irritability, aggressive behavior, clinginess, withdrawal from friends and activities, and avoiding school.
Adolescents: changes in appetite or sleep, irritability, increase in conflicts, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal, and unexplained aches and pains.
It’s also important to note that situational depression exists and is caused by a specific event or circumstance and will likely pass as the situation is resolved.
“To help distinguish if your kids are having difficulty adjusting to the situation versus experiencing depression, look for changes in behavior and the intensity of symptoms,” said Schwenk. “Depression might be diagnosed when a child has exhibited some or all of these symptoms for at least two weeks.”
How to Help a Child Experiencing Depression
Although it can seem like a scary subject to tackle, depression is very treatable. Many of the methods used to treat depression can also be thought of as preventative measures when it comes to building up your child’s mental health.
- Talk Openly – creating an environment where your child feels comfortable approaching you with some of their biggest challenges is key to supporting their mental health. Schwenk recommends meeting your child where they’re at, on their own level; “seek to engage with kids on what they are interested in and willing to talk about: enter their world.” If your child is obsessed with Pokémon cards, for example, take the time to chat with them about their favorite characters and how to play, then use that open space as a time to check in and see how they’re doing.
- Validate Their Feelings – according to Schwenk, it’s never too early to start talking about big, sad feelings and normalizing the experience of sharing your emotions with someone else. “Sadness isn’t something to be solved, it is to be expressed, processed, and integrated. We can make room for our sadness (or anger or fear), invite it to sit with us, and speak about it. We do not need to fear sadness.” You can demonstrate this by talking openly with your child about your own emotions.
- Teach Healthy Coping Skills – the situations that are stressful to adults can be very different from the situations that cause a child to feel stress. However, both children and adults can use many of the same healthy coping strategies to practice self-care in difficult situations. Breathing exercises, meditation, and getting up to move can all be useful tools when it comes to regulating emotions.
- Review the Basics – because depression can affect every part of a child’s life, it’s important to take many areas of their daily routines into account when addressing depression. For example, what is their diet like? Do they get enough exercise? Does your child spend a lot of time with a screen? How about their sleep schedule? Take an inventory of these habits and see which areas could be improved upon to create a healthier lifestyle that can support good mental health.
How to Handle Depression During the Pandemic
In this truly unique time, families are faced with more choices and challenges than ever before regarding their children’s education, safety, and mental and emotional well-being. Although you might not be able to control the current circumstances, you are in control of how you respond to difficult or scary events and your children will likely mirror your reaction.
Schwenk provided some insight into this situation.
“Everyone is having a lot of different feelings coming from the uncertainty surrounding this next school year,” she said. “What are the feelings under the feelings? It is crucial for parents to care for themselves and manage their emotions in order to provide that for their children also. Parents, guardians, and caregivers can model to kids how to handle feelings. So when adults are not able to express themselves and ultimately just shut down, kids are learning to deal with their feelings in the same way. On the other hand, when parents draw, journal, or exercise to process their feelings kids pick up on that.”
As for the children who might already be having difficulties transitioning, Schwenk recommends creating healthy routines and showing your child that you will always be there to support them, even if you don’t know what’s coming next.
“Try to show up for your child in the best way you can,” Schwenk said. “Let your child know that you will get through it together. Whatever happens with school, you will be in it together.”
When to Seek Help
Parents and guardians should seek out professional help if their children exhibit significant changes in behavior or if these symptoms last longer than two weeks. Talk to your family physician or schedule an appointment with a therapist. Depending on the situation, they may prescribe medication, talk therapy, or a combination of both to help your child. Schwenk says it’s important to let your kids know that no matter what they’re dealing with, “it is okay and very brave to seek and ask for help!”
It’s also important to note that if left untreated, symptoms of depression can worsen and potentially lead to thoughts of suicide. If you think your child or adolescent is suicidal, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 911 in case of an emergency.
Depression in children and teens is treatable. With the right tools, resources, and support, you can help your child recover and develop strong coping skills to build resilience in the face of difficult situations.
To learn more about identifying stress, anxiety, and depression in different age groups and what you can do to help, check out our webinar, How To: Support Your Kids as They Begin the 2020-21 School Year. You can also visit our Key Services page to learn more about the treatment methods we offer and to explore our list of additional health and wellness classes to support your child’s overall mental health.
If you are in a crisis, please call us at 720-791-2735 or by calling the crisis line at 844-493-8255. The 24/7 crisis walk-in center and withdrawal management program is open at 4643 Wadsworth Blvd, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033.