It's a question many parents run into: How do I know if my teen is depressed, or if it's something else?
Let’s face it: Teens are moody. They can be happy and joyful, only to become short-tempered and angry a little while later. That’s natural as they deal with the hormonal and physical changes associated with puberty, and the need for privacy and separation from family—a process that begins in adolescence and can be evidenced by that first time you notice your child becomes mortified by your behavior.
This is a time when your teen starts spending increased time with friends and diminished time with family members; to spend hours on social media, texting or talking on the phone; to shut the bedroom door and complain about not having privacy. All of this is normal. Teens have to incrementally break away from parents in order to successfully mature into adulthood.
But what if your child’s behavior seems exaggerated? For instance, not only is he or she irritated by being expected to spend quality time with family, but also doesn’t want socialize with friends? Or perhaps your child drops out of extracurricular sports and other activities, and becomes angry, sad, and disconnected?
That’s when it’s time to take a closer look, says child psychologist Larry Larsen.
“Probably the simplest definition of depression is a significant sadness and negative mood which is viewed as despair and never going away,” Larsen told FIRST. “It is life in an emotional black hole.”
Adult depression takes the form of a persistent sad mood, fatigue, lack of joy, weight gain or loss, changed sleep patterns, confusion, restlessness, or thoughts of self-harm and suicide, according to the diagnostic and statistical manual published by the American Psychiatric Association.
Teens are different. They’re a lot more mercurial than depressed adults. And given that even the most normal of teens is mercurial and moody, you have to watch and listen closely. These sorts of worrisome patterns and statements should send up a red flag, Larsen says.
- Change in sleep patterns and statements like, “I couldn’t get to sleep until 3 a.m."
- Social disconnect: “Tell them I don’t want to talk.”
- Difficulty making decisions: “I don’t know what I want to do! Leave me alone!”
- Dropping performance in school: "I hate algebra, that’s why I flunked."
- Change in appetite: “I’m not hungry.”
- Lack of interest in previously pleasurable experiences: "I know I used to like baseball, but I don't want to play anymore."
- And most alarmingly, self-harm or thoughts of suicide: "Life sucks. I’d rather be dead."
“Obviously everyone has some of these symptoms sometimes,” Larsen says. “But in significant depression they do not go away without being addressed.”
Small Children Can Suffer From Depression, Too
Symptoms of depression in young children are even harder to detect, Larsen says. Maybe your normally energetic 8-year-old isn’t enticed by your suggestion to go out for ice cream, coming back with a statement like, “"I don't feel like it now," or “Do I have to go?”
Other signs that something may be wrong include: ongoing physical complaints (saying things like “I have a headache again"); insomnia and nightmares ("I can't sleep!"); persistent whining and clinginess ("Nobody loves me!"); trouble concentrating (“I don’t remember how to do this."); anxiety: “I’m afraid to try”; and detachment and a sense of defeat ("Who cares!!?").
But Why? Did I Do Something Wrong
Some children are more prone to depression because it runs in the family and they are biologically predisposed. But more often in youngsters, depression is situationally based, meaning that something happened that triggered the depression.
“Parental stress or separation is a frequent culprit,” Larsen says.
So are moving and changing schools, the death of a close family member or friend, being an outcast or bullied, and some medicines like steroids.
If you suspect your child might be depressed, see your doctor, who likely will do a physical exam to rule out other causes. The doctor also will ask questions to gain insight on the way your child thinks. And if it seems warranted, you will be referred on to a therapist and, or, a psychiatrist, who may prescribe medication.
You can help, too, by encouraging regular exercise, serving healthy meals, making sure your child is getting enough sleep and scheduling time with friends and family.
No one wants to see their child sad or suffering, but it’s important to acknowledge the problem and reach out for support and treatment. Remember, you are the first line of defense. Lend a listening ear, express your love and support, and remind your child things will get better.
And they will – which you should remind yourself, too.