Knowing the signs of depression in children and teenagers

We know that there’s a level of moodiness that comes with the territory in childhood and adolescence. But how much is too much? And what can we do to help? Psychologist Dr. Sasha Lynn takes a look at depression in children and teenagers, looking at the signs to keep an eye on and where parents can get help. 

Kids’ mood and behaviour can be up and down at the best of times, taking parents on an emotional rollercoaster! It’s a tough job growing up. If the downs seem to be happening more than the ups, and you’re finding it harder to help your child climb out of the loop, then there might be something else at play, outside of the usual emotionality of a child.

When those low points are occurring for a prolonged period of time, it may indicate a person has depression. More than just a low mood, depression is a serious health condition that impacts on mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.   

Figures indicate depression in children and teenagers in Australia occurs at a rate of about 3%. Children with diagnosed mental health problems may experience ongoing issues as adults. That’s why it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of depression in our teenagers and children as this can help with early intervention.  

Signs of depression

The signs and symptoms of depression in children and teens are generally similar to those that adults experience. However there can often be differences in the way the symptoms present. Signs that your child or teen may be experiencing depression include:

  • Feelings of low mood and sadness, present more days than not
  • Changes in sleeping habits - insomnia or oversleeping
  • Lack of energy, or restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Changes in eating habits - loss of appetite or over-eating. This may reflect in unusual weight gain or loss
  • Complaints of stomach pains, headaches and other physical issues.
  • Decrease in performance (e.g. at school)
  • Reckless behaviour

Depression in children

Children generally process what’s happening in their world at a concrete level; ‘what you see is what you get’. So things are often black and white to them, and something like depression can feel like a whirlwind of confusion, pain and uncertainty. Children are still learning about their emotions and how to mange them, and it can be a bit tricky to reflect on feelings of depression, particularly understanding where these symptoms are coming from and why. 

Depression in teenagers

A teen’s brain is likely to process things in a more abstract way than that of a child, so teens may understand in a bit more depth what depression might look and feel like. But it can still be hard for them to cope, particularly as they’re in a life stage where there are many rapid changes physically, hormonally, socially and emotionally. 
a mother and her son walking to talk about depression

Where to get help for depression in children and teenagers

Depression in teenagers and children is not something parents manage on their own. If you suspect your child might be experiencing depression, make an appointment to speak with your child’s doctor, who can refer you to health professionals specialising in managing mood difficulties. Some sessions with a psychologist can be beneficial for both you and your child, in learning to manage depression and working together as a family. 

What else can we do?

Reflecting and empathising with children and teens goes a long way. It’s important to keep communication lines open, as it’s common for children and teenagers with depression to isolate themselves and shut down communication. 
 
Modelling positive coping skills and normalising difficult feelings is vital. Taking them out for some fresh air and a gentle walk, getting them involved in family events, and trying to keep a consistent routine as much as possible can also help support them through a period of depression. 
 
There are some great mindfulness and relaxation apps that are free to download which you can use with your child that may help them (and you!) develop some positive coping skills. Headspace and Smiling Mind are examples of mindfulness apps available to the general public. There are also sites such as Youth BeyondBlue that have been developed specifically to support children and teens who might be experiencing difficulties. 

A child with depression
 can be confronting for parents but it’s important to remember you’re not alone.
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