Every parent notices when their child is sad. But is your child too sad? Where’s the line between “the blues” and true depression?
Depression in childhood is more common than it ever was before. The world is evolving and there’s more pressure on your child than perhaps 30 or 50 years ago.
So why is it important to monitor your child’s mood?
“Catching” depression early is the best way to intervene. Depression impacts your child’s functioning at home, school, in peer relationships, and even with cognitive growth. The longer the depression lasts, the longer the road will be to overcome it.
What may depression look like in your child? Here are some signs and symptoms to watch out for:
Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day
Typically, kids get sad and then they get over it. But if your child is feeling sad, looks tearful, or is even irritable for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks, then it’s likely something more serious than “just the blues.” If your child had a recent change in his life or if there was a death of someone close to him, he may be adjusting or grieving. If it’s hard to identify what’s causing the chronic irritable or down mood, however, that is a sign of depression.
Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
You know your child’s favorite activities: video games, arts and crafts, playing outside with friends, etc. If your child stops participating in those activities, or does not seem to enjoy them as much, it may be a sign of depression. Every child at one point or another usually stops liking one activity and then starts getting interested in another. That’s common. For me it was first tap, then ballet, then basketball, then choir. But I always had the next thing I was interested in. If your child has stopped expressing an interest in his favorite daily activities and he hasn’t expressed interest in anything new, this might be due to depression.
Significant weight loss or weight gain
Assess your child’s intake of food. Weight loss is not typical for a growing child. You might say, “I know my child is a picky eater, could that be depression?” Not necessarily. Depression affects your child by making him disinterested in food and/or lacking the will to eat, not necessarily by being more selective about the food he eats.
Overeating is also a possible sign of depression too. Eating can be a coping mechanism – a way to feel good. This is most common in teenage girls, but can happen to any child of any age or gender.
Issues with food and weight gain or loss is important to address with your child’s pediatrician. If the pediatrician tells you your child is not meeting his growth milestones, and the pediatrician does not see a physical reason for the growth delay, plus your child has a depressed mood, have a conversation with the pediatrician to rule out depression.
Sleeps too much or not sleeping through the night
A change in sleep pattern, whether it’s oversleeping or not getting enough sleep, is a sign of depression.
Difficulty falling asleep, or waking up in the middle of the night and not falling back to sleep are a typical sign of depression. Nightmares are usually more a sign of anxiety, so if your child is having those, check out this post for more info on stopping the nightmares.
Depression could also make your child oversleep. You might be noticing your child is sleeping longer than you would expect is appropriate for his age or activity level, or if he takes naps when he shouldn’t be tired and reports he never feels rested.
Fatigue or loss of energy
I commonly hear parents describe depression fatigue as “laziness.” Take a second look at the problem. This “laziness” might actually be the result of the poor sleep and eating. Depression is exhausting and you might actually see your child’s movements be sluggish and slower than normal.
Troubles concentrating or difficulty making decisions
Depression commonly interferes with concentration. Is your child’s school reporting he’s not as focused as he used to be? Are his grades slipping? Have you found you have to tell him two or three times more than usual before he follows through on your directions? Or if you ask him to make a decision he says “I don’t care”? Lack of focus and difficulty concentrating in combination with the other symptoms in this post can be a telltale sign of depression.
Feeling worthless is a sign of low self-esteem, and low self-esteem can make your child depressed. Have you heard him make statements like “I don’t deserve this,” “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m a nobody”? Statements such as these indicate that your child is lacking self-worth, and that is one of the more serious sign of depression.
Thoughts of death, thoughts of harming self or killing self
If your child is talking about death, or you are seeing themes of death in his play or his artwork, these are the most serious signs of depression.
Here are some statements I’ve heard children say that raised immediate concern for me and require immediate action:
“I want to kill myself.”
“Sometimes I think about what it would be like to be dead.”
“Will you miss me if I die?”
“I don’t want to live anymore.”
Get an assessment from a therapist or doctor immediately to see what kind of safety plan needs to be developed. These thoughts, feelings, and statements require immediate action.
Many parents I work with tell me their child says “I’m going to kill myself if you (make me do something I don’t want to do)”. Parents often take this to be a sign of manipulation or being overly dramatic. I make it a policy to never doubt a child who makes a statement that includes words about hurting or harming himself. Ultimately, your child should be able to communicate his needs without prefacing a thought with “I’m going to kill myself.”
Bottom line: Any one of these signs and symptoms alone commonly occur in childhood (with the exception of thoughts of self-harm or suicide). However, if you are noticing several of these symptoms combined with a down or irritable mood, this could be depression. Get in contact with a mental health professional TODAY if you suspect your child has depression.
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health. Her proudest accomplishment is following her dream of opening up a practice that is designed to focus on the whole family. She currently serves families in Southern California.