How do I know if my child is truly depressed and, clinically speaking, has Major Depressive Disorder? Or, is my child a typical, moody, or overly emotional teenager? This is often a concern and question made by parents of tweens or teens, and less commonly, parents of younger children. I hope to increase parents’ understanding of childhood depression and, also, explain the difference in clinical depression and the typical teen roller coaster of emotions. I spoke in a previous blog about the stigma with ADHD. That level of stigma does not even compare to the significant stigma with mood disorders. With that said, I challenge the parent reading this to solely be concerned with your child’s emotional wellbeing, health, and safety. Throw off any temptation of making this about you – it isn’t about how well you have or haven’t parented. If your child is depressed, you will prove to be an exceptional parent by getting them the help they need. Having said that, let’s move forward.
WHY DO KIDS GET DEPRESSED?
Depression is a medical condition and does not go away by distraction, getting up and out of the house, sleeping it off, or “snapping out of it.” The biomedical chemistry of the brain neurotransmitters is impaired. Any change in the nerve cell growth or nerve circuits functioning (which allows neurotransmitters to send important messages to the brain) can cause depression. Other factors that may contribute to depression are genetic disposition (the parents or grandparents may have depression), learning disorders (ADHD/ADD, Language Processing Disorders such as Dyslexia, and others), rejection by peers, family abuse (involving self or witnessed), traumatic events, alcohol or drug use, and hormonal imbalance.
WHAT SYMPTOMS SHOULD I BE CONCERNED ABOUT?
Here are a few common signs and symptoms of childhood clinical depression:
- persistent sadness, irritability, anger, or crying (2 weeks or longer)
- overly tired all the time
- withdrawal from activities that were previously enjoyed
- lack of interest in spending time with others
- difficulty finding enjoyment in anything
- change in appetite
With these symptoms, you may also see subsequent signs of depression such as participating in reckless/destructive activities, significant decline in academic performance and concern for school work and grades, self-harm, lack of hygiene, and suicidal thoughts/talk.
A CLOSER LOOK
The first area I want to look at when determining between typical teen behavior and clinical depression is the consistency of symptoms. Is the prolonged (two weeks or longer) mood and emotional state of your child sad and withdrawn? Or do they seem to be in a constant state of anger and irritability? In other words, it doesn’t seem intermittent or to come and go. You don’t see this down trodden mood alternating with upbeat and outgoing throughout the day. Feeling depressed and being clinically depressed are two different things. When we feel depressed, it is usually in reaction to a specific event and your child will move on from this after a day or two. Teen girls who have begun menstrual cycles, will feel depressed, withdrawn, or irritable for a brief time due to hormone changes during each month. With clinical depression, it is day in and day out and doesn’t seem to be caused by anything in particular or significant changes.
Sleep patterns are often atypical with teens especially during summer or school breaks. Teens who are depressed often have difficulty sleeping through the night but seem lethargic and tired all the time. If this symptom is the main concern, be sure to rule out any medical reason for the lethargy and fatigue by getting a physical and blood drawn at your pediatrician’s office.
You may see significant appetite changes. These vary depending on the child. It may be that they barely eat enough to get by and are often saying “I’m not hungry.” They also may self-medicate with food by mindless overeating, often carbohydrates and junk food.
After reading thus far, you may believe your child could truly be depressed. What do you do now? Depression does not go away by itself therefore, your child will need to see a physician and a counselor or therapist. Depression does not get worse by being talked about but, negative feelings will grow while kept inside and can quickly lead to suicidal feelings and hopelessness. “Maybe life would be better off without me” or “I need to escape.” These common feelings are uncontrollable. The depressed teen may feel hopeless to ever get any better or find a way out of what seems like a dark pit. Unfortunately, teens usually do not feel comfortable talking about these feelings to their parents because, they do not want to make their parents feel worried or sad. The depressed child may not feel as if they can handle the parent’s reactions and emotions in addition to their own.
Medication could be necessary depending on the severity of the depressive symptoms and presence of suicidal thoughts. Antidepressant medications are not addictive and often, not required forever. They can aid in helping your child feel like them self again and be useful during the counseling process. In counseling, your child can express freely without hurting someone they love, they can process hurtful or challenging life events, and make goals and find purpose again.
I hope this has given you clarity as a parent and, more importantly, helped you decide on your next step in helping your child navigate life’s challenges. If you are still needing help, feel free to email me at email@example.com . I realize that even though there are commonalities between all kids with depression, each one is unique and complex.