Every child experiences a host of intense ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ as they navigate their way through childhood and adolescence – it’s a natural and normal part of growing up. But what if the low moods become more frequent, intense and long-lasting?
Increasingly, mental health issues such as depression are being seen in children and young people. Recent studies suggest that nearly one in four young people will experience the symptoms of depression before they reach the age of 19, and it’s easy to understand why.
Children and teenagers today often have jam-packed schedules both inside and outside of school, with homework, sports fixtures and clubs, not to mention social, family and other commitments they have to deal with. All of these come with different challenges, which could include arguments with friends, bullying, disputes with parents, and the stress of exams.
Pertinent to the current ‘touch screen’ generation are the added pressures related to social media, and the unrealistic and often unhealthy expectations which are projected about how people should look and act.
Unstructured time to simply relax, switch-off and enjoy some spontaneous fun with friends and family is not even a consideration for many young people, yet so crucial for their development. It is little wonder, therefore, that their mental health can be impacted.
How can I identify signs of depression in my child?
It can be upsetting to watch your child struggle with persistent low moods and sadness and, worryingly, research reveals that many parents are simply not aware of the concerns and anxieties their children are facing or was symptoms to look out for. So how can parents correctly identify whether their child is showing signs of depression and what can they do to help?
Any mental health condition that starts to negatively impact a child’s everyday life - whether it’s impairing their ability to function on a day-to-day basis, causing them to lose interest in activities and hobbies they once enjoyed, or simply preventing them from experiencing any joy or pleasure – should act as a warning sign that help is needed.
While each child’s situation is different, there are some key signs of depression – psychological, social and physical – that parents should look out for. These include:
Psychological symptoms of depression in children:
- Persistent sadness, or low mood that doesn't seem to go away
- Being 'grumpy', irritable or angry all the time
- Crying more than usual
- Poor concentration
- Having difficulty making decisions
- Being highly sensitive to bad news or rejection
- Talking about feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
- Low confidence or self-esteem
- Talking about feeling empty or numb
- Suicidal thoughts and impulses
- Older children may abuse substances
Social symptoms of depression in children:
- Lacking interest in activities or hobbies that they once enjoyed
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- A decline in school performance
- Demonstrating problem behaviour at school
Physical symptoms of depression in children:
- Frequent headaches and stomach aches
- Unexplained digestive problems
- Being unable to sleep, or sleeping more than usual
- Eating more or less than usual
- Weight fluctuations
- Feeling tired and exhausted all the time
- Being restless or unable to sit still
- Being more lethargic than usual
How can I help my child who is dealing with depression?
Parents can often feel overwhelmed and completely helpless when faced with a child dealing with depression. But support and understanding are crucial in helping your child to confront their fears and concerns and in developing healthier ways to cope. The following initial steps can help pave the way to an open and honest discussion with your child and help you to work together to develop strategies to successfully overcome their difficulties:
- Engage with your children as much as possible. Whether it’s over a meal, or when out for a walk, make a point of asking about their day, their friends, plans for the weekend etc. It’s so important to keep the lines of communication open and to show a real interest in their lives.
- Be vigilant on the effects of media and social media and pay special attention to the sites children are exposed to. Regular monitoring, blocking access to specific sites, and imposing a time-limit on electronic devices is key.
- Encourage children to have hobbies and interests outside the classroom. Sport and exercise can help improve and increase resilience to mental health problems. Just 20 mins a day can have a dramatic impact on mood and sleep patterns.
- Remind your child it's absolutely normal to experience strong emotions such as sadness, anger, fear and anxiety, but these don't last, and you can do things to help them such as watching funny YouTube clips, talking things through, taking exercise together, even if just going for a walk around the block.
- Ensure all medications are locked away at all times.
- Remind your child you love them unconditionally.
- It is extremely common for young people to 'catastrophise'; always thinking the very worst will happen. Help them to banish irrational thinking and gain a true perspective by focusing on their skills and qualities, and by discussing problems or situations from the past which they have successfully overcome.
- Encourage them to think about specific worries and concerns for a maximum of 10 mins every morning and evening. Then put them away in a metaphorical ‘box’ until the next day. This will encourage them to compartmentalise and ‘switch-off’.
- Seek professional help - it is hugely important to seek professional help if you think that your child is depressed. This will ensure that your child receives the dedicated support that they need, in order to prevent their depression from becoming a long-term problem.