Feeling sad or down, or having periods of moodiness is normal for most children, but when these negative thoughts and feelings linger for weeks or months, then parents beware: It could mean that your child is depressed.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), at least 2 to 3 percent of kids 6 to 12 years old and 6 to 8 percent of teenagers may be suffering from depression. In 2014 alone, 2.8 million teens ages 12 to 17 suffered one major depressive episode.1 These are staggering statistics, considering that at these ages, children should be happy and enjoying life without any worries.
So what are the common telltale signs of depression in children and teens that parents should be wary of? Here are some important facts you need to keep in mind.
Watch Out for These Signs of Depression in Children
The problem with childhood depression is that it can be difficult to spot. This is because the behavior of a depressed child or teenager is different from that of a depressed adult.2 Many parents or guardians sometimes misread the symptoms as well.
For example, irritability or frequent bursts of anger may be considered as a bad attitude or disrespect. Having low energy and lack of interest may seem like the child is not trying.3 This is why, as a parent, you should be very vigilant when it comes to these telltale signs. Below are some of the common hallmark symptoms of depression in children and teenagers:4,5
✓ Lack of enjoyment of the things that usually bring them happiness
✓ Lack of energy — not being able, or feeling as if they're unable, to do simple tasks
✓ Being sad or irritable for most of the day. The child may say they feel angry or sad, or may even appear tearful or cranky
✓ Having a low self-esteem
✓ Oversleeping during the day and sleeping too little at night
✓ Losing interest in spending time with family or friends (being socially withdrawn)
✓ Experiencing frequent mood swings, and feeling guilty or worthless
✓ Frequently feeling fatigued
✓ A noticeable change in their eating patterns (either eating too much or too little); may also lose or gain weight in the process
✓ Experiencing aches or pains, although there are no physical symptoms
✓ Having difficulty making choices
✓ Poor performance at school
✓ Not caring about the future
✓ Expressing thoughts about death or suicide
Children and teens who are depressed often feel as if they’re worthless, unlovable or rejected. They also feel as if everyday problems are more difficult than they really are.
Childhood depression may also have long-term physical effects on children, as reported by researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. According to their findings, children who suffered clinical depression during their preschool years had brains that develop abnormally, compared to preschoolers who did not go through depression. They have lower gray matter volume in the cortex, an area of the brain that is crucial for processing emotions. In a Science Daily article, study author Dr. Joan L. Luby said:
"Traditionally, we have thought about the brain as an organ that develops in a predetermined way, but our research is showing that actual experience — including negative moods, exposure to poverty, and a lack of parental support and nurturing — have a material impact on brain growth and development."6
In addition, children who are depressed have a higher risk of committing suicide, which is now the third leading cause of death among adolescents ages 10 to 24.7
What Should You Do if Your Child Is Depressed?
If you spot one or more of these symptoms in your children, you must address depression before it becomes more debilitating. The first thing you can do is to talk to them and find out what’s bothering them. Offer your support and show love. They may try to deny or hide their feelings, while some may not realize that they’re depressed, but if they know that someone is willing to help them, they may eventually open up to you.
Navina Evans, a consultant psychiatrist at the East London (England) and City Mental Health Trust and Capio Nightingale Hospital, advises:8 "Try to find out what's troubling them. And whatever's causing the problem, don't trivialize it. It may not be a big deal to you, but it could be a major problem for your child." Here are other ways to help children cope with depression:
• Nourish them with nutritious foods, while avoiding high-sugar processed foods. Processed foods are loaded with additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), added sugars and artificial sweeteners that can alter your children's brain function and mental state. Make sure they get enough high-quality omega-3 fats instead, which play an important role in keeping the brain healthy.9
Giving them traditionally fermented foods like cultured vegetables and homemade yogurt made from raw milk may help as well. Research has shown that certain probiotic strains like Lactobacillus rhamnosus can help lower stress hormones, which in turn reduces behavior linked to anxiety and depression.10
• Spend time together. Ideally, you should spend quality time with your children outdoors. Get enough exercise, as studies have constantly shown that there is a strong link between improved mood and aerobic capacity. Meanwhile, being outside in the sunlight can prevent seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that's linked to the weather.
• Make sure they get enough sleep. There is an intricate link between sleep and depression and, in fact, having a sleep disorder is one of the defining symptoms of depression in both children and adults.
Lastly, show patience and kindness when dealing with a depressed child. Because the disorder may make the child or teen become extremely irritable or difficult to talk to, parents and guardian tend to feel frustrated or even angry. Keep in mind that these moods are part of the disorder.
Try to be as understanding as you can, and avoid using harsh words or arguing back. By keeping a positive attitude, you can help your child overcome depression.