Every parent has experienced coping with his or her child's occasional bad mood; it's an inevitable part of raising kids and, aside from being emotionally draining, isn't normally cause for concern.
But what do you do if the occasional mood swings morph into depression?
Depression in children and teens is much more than the sporadic bad mood and is a very serious issue that affects every aspect of their life. What's worse, if left untreated, it can lead a child on a downward spiral towards drug and alcohol abuse, self-loathing, pregnancy, violence or even suicide.
As a parent or guardian, you play a vital role in first recognizing the signs of depression and then jumping into action, offering support and encouragement to help get your child back on track.
To better understand how you can help, it's imperative to know the signs and symptoms first:
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Irritability, anger or hostility
- Tearfulness or frequent crying
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Loss of interest in activities
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
- Lack of enthusiasm or motivation
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thoughts of death or suicide
With all of changes of puberty, peer pressure at school and simply just figuring out who they are as a person, it's obvious children and teens can harbor innumerable insecurities and anxieties. So it's natural to think your child is "just being a typical teenager" when sometimes it goes deeper than that.
Some things to consider are how long the symptoms have been present, how severe they are and how different your child is acting from his or her usual self. Any dramatic changes in personality, mood or behavior are all red flags of depression and need to be addressed immediately – the sooner the better.
If you do suspect your child is suffering, there are some helpful ways to approach the issue. First, in a loving and completely non-judgmental way, you should gently open up a line of conversation with your child by sharing your concerns. Don't be afraid to get specific in listing out the exact symptoms you've noticed that have worried you, and then encourage your child to share his or her thoughts.
It's vital that you learn to listen without lecturing, and resist any urge you have to criticize or pass judgment. Whether or not you agree or condone what they might be saying, the most important thing is that they're actually talking to you, which is the first step in getting help.
Be gentle but still persistent, but don't be surprised if your child remains stand offish and is reluctant to open up to you. Keep in mind how tough it is for kids to openly discuss depression, and how embarrassing, shameful or scared they might be feeling.
When you've tried your best at getting your child to confide in you, but to no avail, it's important to trust your instincts. Try not to let their denial sway you if you feel strongly about the symptoms you'd noticed up until this point. The worst thing to do is to adopt the "wait and see" approach, as these symptoms usually don't go away on their own and can result in severe long term damage.
First, make an immediate appointment with your child to see the family doctor for a depression screening. As part of this screening, the doctor will also do a physical exam and take blood samples in order to check for anything medical that might be affecting him or her.
If there aren't any health problems present, you'll then ask your doctor to refer you to a reputable and trusted psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in children and adolescents. Remember, always make sure you get your child's input when it comes to choosing a counselor or therapist and that they feel fully comfortable.
You can also discuss medicinal options with your specialist, as there are a number of medication options to treat depression in teens. While they may help ease symptoms, antidepressants aren't always the best option, as they come with a whole new set of risks and side effects of their own. Be sure to talk at length with your doctor or specialist weighing the pros and cons before immediately putting your child on any sort of medication.
At the end of the day, one of your biggest jobs is to be understanding, even when you might be exhausted or aggravated or simply just confused. You can also help by encouraging physical activity, such as a bike ride or even something as simple as a walk, as exercise can do wonders for relieving the symptoms of depression. Lastly, make sure you read up on and educate yourself about this issue, which will give you a better understanding of what your child might be going through.