Depression isn't just a case of the blues or a bad attitude. It's the leading cause of disability worldwide, and plays a role in 90% of suicides. A mix of insecurity about their own parenting and skepticism about how hard life as a kid can really be conspire to convince many parents that their child is not actually depressed. But depression is common among children and teens, and early intervention isn't just good parenting; it could save your child's life. Left untreated, depression gets worse, and can even lead to health problems such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Knowing the signs of depression can help you intervene before it's too late.
Changes in Behavior
Children, especially very young ones, often don't have the verbal acumen to explain their existential despair to their parents. For this reason, any change in behavior could signal depression, especially if the change isn't better explained by something else, such as the birth of a new child. The more pronounced the change, the greater your concern should be. A “C” students who gets an “F” might have just had a slip-up, but an overachiever who begins failing classes is almost certainly depressed.
Increased Physical Ailments
Depression is more than just a psychological issue. The stress it causes can affect other parts of the body, too. And for kids who can't verbalize their feelings or who don't have adequate support, translating psychological symptoms into physiological ones is common. You should be concerned if your child has unexplained headaches, muscle pain, gastrointestinal distress, or skin problems. Some children also experience a global decrease in immunity, so if your child suddenly gets sick more than usual, talk to her pediatrician.
Lack of Enjoyment or Hope
Anhedonia—the inability to feel pleasure—is the hallmark symptom of depression. Not all depressed kids cry or seem sad, but most lose their ability to enjoy everyday pleasures. If your child abandons a once-beloved hobby for no apparent reason, no longer wants to spend time with friends, complains that life is nothing but boredom, or seems hopeless about her ability to ever feel better, she's almost certainly depressed.
Depression manifests differently in every child and teen. Some cry all the time; others bottle up their emotions. Some other symptoms to watch for include:
- Increased conflict with friends or family
- Increased anger, especially among teenagers and boys
- Breaking up with a significant other for no apparent reason
- Reckless or dangerous behavior in a previously cautious child
- Lack of motivation
- Behavior problems at school
- Abuse of alcohol, prescription pills, or street drugs
- Self-mutilation in the form of cutting, hair-pulling, disordered eating, or suicide attempts
- Thoughts of suicide