Unfortunately feeling depressed is not uncommon in children and young people. This concerns me both as a parent and as a clinician. Adolescents and children should be enjoying life. They should be having fun, have less to worry about, and be afforded the freedom to be happy. Even young children can find life to be unfulfilling, sad, and demanding. While this raises the question of what are we doing wrong from a cultural perspective, we need to be more alert to the indicators and signs of depression in children and young people.
I am generally of the view that parents know their children the best. You may be concerned about your child’s emotional well being or mental health, but are unable to put your finger on what the issue is. That doesn’t mean the niggling worries go away. The first thing I would say is Trust Your Instincts. You know how your child operates and views the world. If you are concerned your child maybe experiencing depression, speak to them (if you can) and contact your GP for a consultation.
In the meantime, here are some clear indicators of depression. They aren’t exclusive and some may sound familiar.
You don’t have to be experiencing them all to feel depressed.
As it says on the tin really. Have you noticed your child has lost their “zing” or just seems really sad? Sometimes it’s not obvious and they may come across as irritable. They may seem touchy and snappy, and yes, teens can be like this anyway. It’s whether you feel it is over and above what you would expect from your child. Maybe it’s becoming more frequent or lasting longer. Another sign is tearfulness and a sense of emotional fragility.
When we are in a good place, we make plans and have a balanced outlook regarding the future. When we experience low mood or depression, things seem bleaker. There can be a feeling of discouragement about the future; an inability to look ahead, feel positive and make plans. It can all feel fruitless and just too much effort. The same applies for working, or engaging in education. It can become really hard to maintain concentration and feel enthused for learning. There is often a reduced sense of satisfaction in the things that are achieved or usually enjoyed. Similarly, their ability to make decisions may alter and become harder for them.
Obviously such feelings are unhelpful when it comes to breaking the cycle of depression. When a young person (or anyone) is depressed it can be hard to muster the energy to do the basics, let alone anything else. There is a close relationship between what we do, how we think, and how we feel. Therefore, the less we do when depressed, the worse we are likely to feel as it confirms unhelpful thoughts that are likely to be whirring around in our minds. The key to this is changing what we do and seeing how it effects our mood but making those first steps can be a challenge. It’s hard to see the woods for the trees.
Negative feelings come with depression although your child may not experiencing them all. Even so, negative emotions and the unhelpful associated thoughts, can be consuming. Feelings associated with depression include guilt, failure, a sense of disappointment in themselves, and a persistent feeling of being punished (but not necessarily able to say by what or whom). With these feelings, we often observe young people blaming, and being critical of, themselves. This can be to the point where they don’t believe their depression is warranted and they shouldn’t have it at all. There is a difficulty acknowledging positive feelings, or trusting they will hang around for a while. Any positives are often dampened by negative emotions, or may not be recognised at all.
If you are concerned your child is experiencing depression, has their social life changed? Some young people withdraw from their friends and become quite isolated. There can be loss of interest in others, and they may be difficult to connect or engage with. This change can reflect a lack of pleasure gained from seeing friends. However, it can often be a misinterpretation that no one wants to spend time with them or is interested in them, as well as an indication of their own self-worth.
When people experience depression, young or old, their ability to engage and undertake daily tasks and usual routines can be effected. It’s not uncommon for me to hear a young person has lost interest in themselves and is no longer washing, brushing their teeth, or taking care of themselves. There is such a lethargy that comes with depression. Your child is not being lazy; it’s almost painful to do some of these things. Sleep can be disrupted too and can go one of two ways: either more time is spent in bed, so your child may be shutting off and sleeping more, or sleep is disrupted or difficult, usually with extended night time waking. With this comes tiredness which in turn affects mood. A change in appetite is common too. Has your child started eating more (comfort?) or less. Has there been a change in their weight?
I believe we all think about death at times. All sorts of thoughts come into our minds, we have little control over that. However, actively considering and planning to hurt ourselves in a serious manner is a clear indication that help is needed. My blog post on suicide is here. If such thoughts or plans (plans are very serious) have been voiced, seek help straight away. Thinking of suicide does not mean it’s going to happen, but a risk assessment and safety plan will need to be put in place. The same applies for self-harm. If you want some more information on this, my self-harm post is here.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
While these are some of the classic indicators of depression or low mood, everyone’s experience is different. What’s important is recognising when your child needs help and when they need you. They may not recognise it or know how to express what they’re feeling. If they are experiencing depression, try not to think there’s something wrong with your child. It can be powerful and meaningful to try and understand what has happened to affect their mood and wellbeing rather than thinking there is something inherently wrong with them. If an understanding is formed, it will help should future challenges be faced.