As parents, what we want most is for our children to be happy. But what do you do when their happiness seems out of reach? How do you know if a child’s sadness is actually depression?
I’m 39 years old and I’ve battled depression for over 20 years. Looking back, my depression started taking hold in my senior year of high school and by the first few weeks of college, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t stop crying.
Even today as I type this, I’ve been fighting the urge to sleep the day away.
And I’m medicated, I’ve been through countless hours of counseling, I’m educated and experienced with the illness. Yet still I beat myself up for not being able to snap out of it. I compare myself to others and hate that some days I have to struggle to want to stay awake.
Depression and other mental illnesses are beyond frustrating for everyone involved. I know, I’ve been on both ends. Depression runs rampant in my gene pool hitting many of my family and even causing my grandmother to kill herself before I had the chance to meet her.
So I keep a keen eye out for symptoms in my own children. Thankfully, so far my 5 and 7 year-old girls are happy and not displaying any symptoms of depression.
Depression in Children
But depression can start at any age. Preschoolers, school-age youngsters and teenagers all can get seriously and dangerously depressed and the signs may differ depending on their age.
Here are some of the signs experts say parents should watch out for…
It is terrifying to consider that your child might be depressed. But, it is critical to take action if you suspect these symptoms are affecting your child.
If your child is exhibiting symptoms of depression…
- Seek help immediately.
Do not wait and try to figure it out yourself. If your child is considering suicide and, you suspect, in danger, call a 24-hour help line immediately. Otherwise, call a therapist and/or a pediatrician.
- Learn more about depression and treatment options.
“Teaching both the child and the family about depression can be a big help. It makes them less likely to blame themselves for the problem.” HealthLinkBC.ca
- Consider counseling.
Play Therapy for young children and Talk Therapy with an experienced therapist for older children and teens can be helpful.
- In addition to therapy, if your child is seriously depressed, a doctor might prescribe medication.
It is important to follow the dosage instructions and do not let your child suddenly stop taking the medication.
How You Can Help At Home
Family members and friends often feel hopeless when a loved one is suffering from depression. But parents can be a huge help for a child struggling with a mood disorder.
Below are some ideas inspired by the resource at HealthLinkBC.ca and from my personal experience as an adult battling depression.
- Help your child get regular exercise.
I can say from personal experience that exercise greatly improves my mood. The problem is when you’re depressed, getting up and out of the house to exercise can be almost impossible.
As a parent, try to encourage and join your child in a fun type of exercise or physical play.
- Provide healthy food and encourage a healthy diet.
Again from personal experience, I can say that when I’m in a depressed mood, I will try to self-medicate with sugar and overeating.
I suggest being careful to not overly restrict or monitor food, but instead try to eat with your child and be aware of other food he/she may be consuming while you’re not around.
- Watch your child’s sleep patterns and ensure he/she is getting enough sleep at regular times.
Increases and decreases in sleep can be a symptom of depression. Again in my personal experience, sleep is a huge factor in my mood.
For me, sleep is my favorite escape but I will also tend to stay awake late at night and then want to sleep all day.
- Monitor medication.
Ensure your child takes any prescribed medications at regular times and does not suddenly stop without a doctor’s supervision.
- Spend time with your child.
It’s profound the effect a parent’s time can have on a child. Make time to talk and listen in open ended and unscheduled situations with your child. Ask questions about how he or she is feeling and if he or she is having fun.
It’s key for kids to have fun and if you see that your child is not having fun while playing, it can be a sign you should discuss with a therapist or doctor.
- Help your child understand that things will get better in time.
I think that one of the biggest risk factors for anyone struggling with depression is the inability to imagine a future different from the present misery.
Children especially need help understanding the future can be different.
Suicide Warning Signs
We often talk of the death of a child being the ultimate pain a parent can have to bear, but I think one step further would be when that death is from suicide.
I can’t even imagine the pain for the parents. The fact is that most of us can’t imagine why or how anyone could kill himself or herself and some even feel anger towards the person who has committed suicide.
Darcy Haag Granello, a professor of counselor education at Ohio State University explains that, “People who are suicidal don’t want to die. That’s not the goal. People who are suicidal want the pain to end.”
The feeling has been called “psycheache,” Granello says, and clients battling it might be unable to envision themselves going another day with the deep, intense pain that it involves. “The fact that people who are suicidal are telling people, reaching out in a way they know how, means that they are looking for some relief.” Reference: Counseling Today.
As parents, we must watch for signs of suicidal tendencies in our children and seek help immediately.
- Making suicidal statements.
- Being preoccupied with death in conversation, writing, or drawing.
- Giving away belongings.
- Withdrawing from friends and family.
- Having aggressive or hostile behavior.
It is extremely important that you take all threats of suicide seriously and seek immediate treatment for your child or teenager. If you are a child or teen and have these feelings, talk with your parents, an adult friend, or your doctor right away to get some help.
Other warning signs can include:
- Neglecting personal appearance.
- Running away from home.
- Risk-taking behavior, such as reckless driving or being sexually promiscuous.
- A change in personality (such as from upbeat to quiet).
The common theme when discussing depression is “get help”. But those two words can encompass a life long journey.
If you suspect your child may be depressed, your first step is to begin your journey of getting help.
Perhaps your road will be short or it may continue for years.
As I said at the start of this post, my journey battling a genetic chemical imbalance began in my late teen years and I’m still winding my way up the hill as my 40th birthday peaks around the corner.
The good news is that today there is so much more help available now than when my parents tried to get me help more than 20 years ago.
In fact, this post has been sponsored by a special school called Sage Day. It is a private, accredited, therapeutic school in Northern, New Jersey for students grades 5 through 12 who need a different learning environment.
Sage Day says, “Typically, our students have been diagnosed as suffering from depression, school phobia, school avoidance, anxiety disorder and other issues. They are often described as being emotionally “fragile.” By joining our supportive community, students find renewed confidence and success.”
I find it profoundly comforting that a school such as SAGE Day exists and is currently helping children and their families find hope.
As a long-time sufferer of depression and as a mother myself, I sincerely hope you never have to struggle with the beast of mental illness either yourself or as a parent. But I do hope you familiarize yourself with the warning signs so that you are able to recognize and seek help if it strikes your child.
Disclosure: This post is not intended as medical advice. Please seek professional medical advice if you suspect your child might have depression.
This post has been sponsored by SAGE Day, but has been researched and written by Susan Carraretto, co-founder of 5 Minutes for Mom.