The CDC reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth. Increasing stories in the news are bringing to our awareness the seriousness of childhood depression.
Many parents feel overwhelmed, frustrated or frightened by the topic. It’s important to shed some light on the issue so that we can recognize the signs and understand strategies for helping.
What is childhood depression?
Depression may be present when your child…
• Has an irritable or sad mood for most of the day. Your child may say they feel sad or angry or may look more tearful or cranky.
• No longer enjoys what used to make him happy.
• Has drastic weight or eating changes.
• Has a big change in sleep patterns (too much or too little)
• No longer wanting to be with family or friends.
• Is no longer able to do simple tasks because of lack of energy
• Has low Self-esteem. Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
• Is unable to make choices or has trouble focusing.
• Has little or no care about what happens in the future.
• Experiences aches and pains when nothing is really wrong.
• Has started self-harming (cutting) or having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.
Any of these signs can occur in children who are not depressed, but when seen together, nearly every day, they are red flags for depression.
“Normal” teen behavior vs. Depression
The teen years are hallmarked by change and independence. Hormones are going crazy, the pleasure center of the brain is magnified while the frontal lobe (decision-making) is muted. Normal teens are: moody, challenging, affectionate one day and a jerk the next. Sigh.
But every child is different and so knowing your particular child or teen is essential so that you can recognize when BIG shifts occur in personality, behavior or habits.
Any actions of self-harm or talk of suicide should be taken seriously as well as major shifts in the symptoms listed above. You can also take the PHQ-9 assessment: Depression Screener PHQ-9_English
What should I do if I think my child is depressed?
• Pay attention, validate emotions and encourage your child to engage with others. One-on-one time with parents, pointing out strengths build the parent-child bond.
•Tend to physiological needs– sleep, hydration, nutrition, medication. The basics for good mental health include a healthy diet, enough sleep, exercise, and positive connections with other people at home and at school.
• Tell your child’s doctor. Some medical problems can cause depression. Your child’s doctor may recommend counseling or medication.
• Limit screen time, monitor use of electronics and encourage physical activity and connections with others.
• Talk about bullying. Being the victim of bullying is a major cause of mental health problems in children.
• Consider getting professional counseling support, where they can risk assess and develop a plan, help your child process emotions, build coping tools and strengthen tolerance of distress.
• Support healthy coping skills for your child: Find relaxing ways to deal with stress, talk and listen with love and support, help your child learn to describe their feelings, break down big tasks into smaller steps, focus on seeing things in a positive light.
When Safety is a Concern
• Treat any thoughts of suicide as an emergency.
• Weapons, medicines and alcohol should be locked up.
• Follow your child’s medical/mental healthy treatment plan. Make sure your child attends therapy and takes any medicine as directed.
• Develop a list of people to call when feelings get worse.
• Watch for risk factors, which includes talking about suicide in person or on the internet, giving away belongings, increased thoughts about death, and substance abuse.
Suicide and Crisis Resources:
• Bluebonnet Trails Community Services: http://bbtrails.org/ 1-800-841-1255
• Suicide hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE, 1-800-799-4889 (for deaf or hard of hearing)
Have Questions? Want to Start Counseling?
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Jenna Fleming is a licensed professional counselor serving kids, teens, and parents in Georgetown, TX. Her group practice offers counseling services, courses and classes to support families in getting on track and staying that way.