My daughter got in the car after school recently and promptly dissolved into tears. She said “Amy” had given her a hard time at school the past couple of days. By the end of the week, she wondered if she and Amy could go to the movies together. Any child can come home from school in tears or have a tough day. But when a bad mood stretches over weeks, it’s time to be concerned about depression. Those who work with depressed and suicidal children and teens say parents should watch for the signs. When a bad mood stretches over weeks, get help.
“Any child can have some symptoms of depression on a particular day,” says Mary Herbert Daly, a licensed clinical social worker. “You need to observe behavior over several days or even a week or two.” Children may cry without an obvious reason, Daly says. Their grades may drop, and they may start skipping school. Older children and teens may turn to alcohol, drugs and promiscuity. Depressed children may start sleeping and eating more or less than usual. They may start wetting the bed, says Richardean Benjamin-Coleman, a clinical specialist in psychiatric and mental health nursing. “There could be acting out,” Benjamin-Coleman says. But on the other hand, the child may withdraw.
“More often than not, the kids who act out get more attention than the ones who are withdrawn and quiet,” Daly says. “Busy parents sometimes may overlook quiet and withdrawn kids and may just see this as a relief that they’re not being bothered by the child. Certainly, parents need to be in touch with the behavior patterns of the kids and particularly look at some changes.”
Many of today’s parents are too busy to notice subtle changes that can happen to kids, especially when there are multiple kids in a household. A bad mood that is occurring over weeks may be hard to detect in a typically quiet kid. That’s why tuning-in to your kids is important. It takes time, energy and attentiveness. And all kids are worth your time.
“Many children are doing this,” Daly says. “They say when they bleed they feel a sense of relief.”
“The bad part about it,” says Benjamin-Coleman, “is while they may not have intentions of killing themselves, they may do so accidentally.”
When children are depressed, it’s more than a bad mood. They may complain of pains with no physical cause, Daly says.
“We had a 13-year-old in the emergency department,” Daly says. “She frequently complained of stomach aches. Her primary care provider couldn’t find anything wrong. It even got to the point where she had exploratory surgery. It was nothing at all. It was her way of showing her unhappiness. Another child complained of her legs hurting so much she couldn’t bear her weight.”
• Teens may deny they have a problem, but parents should insist on talking about it.
“Don’t be afraid to say, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?’ If you bring it up, you’re not putting it in their minds because it’s already in their minds,” Daly says. “Let your child know you’re there, that you care for him and that you’re going to work this out with him. If the teenager says “Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk.’ You need to say, “That’s not an option.'” Once you realize your child’s bad mood is actually a problem, the next step is to go to your child’s doctor to rule out physical causes and to get a referral for counseling if it’s warranted.
The good news, according to Daly is that 80 – 90 percent of depressed children can be helped with therapy, medication or a combination of the two. And more children are being treated. But too many children with problems still aren’t being treated, Daly says.
Some families choose holistic approaches such as massage, light therapy, aromatherapy and herbs along with or instead of counseling and drugs. Light therapy can be helpful to those suffering from seasonal affective disorder – depression in response to winter’s shorter days. Check with a physician before giving a child herbal remedies because herbs could interact negatively with medication prescribed by a doctor, Daly says. The best defense is to know your child and keep an open line of communication. If depression hits, don’t hesitate to get help fast.
What to Look For
Not every depressed child will experience every symptom – some will experience a few symptoms, some many; and the severity of symptoms will vary from child to child. Depression can be very serious, but it is treatable. Talk with your child’s pediatrician if your child shows any of these signs and symptoms.
Signs of Depression That May Be Present in Kids
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Significant change in appetite or body weight
- Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
- Loss of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent vague, nonspecific physical complaints such as headaches, muscle aches, stomach aches or tiredness
- Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
- Talk of or efforts to run away from home
- Outbursts of shouting, complaining, unexplained irritability, or crying
- Lack of interest in playing with friends
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Social isolation or poor communication
- Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
- Increased irritability, anger or hostility
- Reckless behavior
- Difficulty with relationships
Resources: National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov.