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Warning Signs of Depression in Children and Teens

It's difficult to know when children or teens are going through typical hormonal ups and downs and when to take their sadness more seriously. What's the difference between typical teenage angst and serious depression? Depression is one of the most common mental health problems in America. According, as many as 1 in every 33 children may have depression; in teens, that number may be as high as 1 in 8.

Some of the most important signs of depression for parents to recognize in their children include:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Prolonged feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection
  • Appetite and/or sleep changes
  • Vocal outbursts or crying
  • Impaired concentration
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Physical ailments like stomachaches or headaches that don't respond to treatment
  • Suicidal thoughts

We all may exhibit some of these symptoms at times. However, to meet a diagnosis of depression, someone would have to exhibit five of these symptoms for two weeks. For teens, depression can look different from adults. As a school counselor, I work with our nurse to identify children who show an increased pattern of stomachaches, headaches, or other symptoms that are otherwise ruled out as non-medical issues. These could be caused by anxiety or depression. Parents might notice their child describing more ailments. If there is no physical cause of the distress and nothing going on at school, this could be cause for concern.

Another sign of depression to look for in children is increased irritability and withdrawal. Often children will withdraw to the computer, bedroom, or in some other way in which they are disconnecting. They may seem more sensitive and feel like they are being criticized if you make suggestions that they engage in activities or other things they seemed to have previously enjoyed. Your child may appear to be lashing out at you, but this could be more indicative of the pain they feel on the inside than anything you may be doing.

If you have any concerns, don't hesitate to contact your child's school counselor, teachers, or anyone else who knows your child well to get a good sense of any behavioral or emotional changes they have seen. It will help you to get a complete picture of what is happening and may shed light on some issues your child may be having.

There are two symptoms of depression that you should seek professional help for immediately. If you discover that your child is using drugs or alcohol or engaging in other risky behavior, he or she is at an increased risk for more serious issues. Alcohol and drug abuse is correlated to violence, accidents, and teen pregnancy or STDs. As a depressant, alcohol can make the situation worse.

If your child is talking of hurting himself or speaking of suicide, get immediate help. Sometimes teens will make jokes about suicide, write about it, comment online about it, or listen to songs about death. I ask children and teens directly, "Have you thought of hurting yourself? Have you thought of suicide?" It's OK as a parent to ask that question in a non-judgmental way. Don't be afraid to say the word "suicide." For help, you can speak to your child's school counselor or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If your child is suicidal, immediately get your child help -- call 911.

When overwhelmed, it's hard to think clearly, so it's important your child knows what resources are available and who they can talk to. Even if your child is dealing with typical issues, sometimes short-term counseling can help.

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