Child and teen depression signs

by Judith Coulson-Geissmann
Child depression

When we think of a depressed person, we tend to think of someone who acts sad. The picture we have in our head is of someone who doesn’t want to get off the couch or out of bed, who is eating much less or much more than usual has trouble sleeping or wants to sleep all the time, who has trouble with usual daily activities and doesn’t talk much.

Children and teens with depression can certainly look like that. But depression can play out in different ways. Numbers are hard to come by in younger children, but among 12 to 17 year olds, almost 13% have had a major depressive episode. It’s important to be aware of the signs. Depression is a preventable and treatable illness. Untreated depression in young people can lead to long-term mental health and physical problems, and a possible suicide.

Here are some possible signs of depression in youth:

Dropping grades. There are lots of reasons why grades can drop, including over stretching of demand and physical or mental resources, learning disabilities, ADHD, bullying, or other social issues, and substance abuse. But whenever a child’s grades are dropping, it’s important to investigate possible causes looking at the child or teen on a physical, mental and environmental level.

Irritability and anger. Teens are often irritable and angry as a result of hormonal and brain structure changes during puberty (don’t take it personally). But if it’s new and persistent, or if a child or teen is getting in trouble much more than usual, it is time to look at eating, sleeping, social media and communication habits.

Boredom. When a child who used to be interested in things is suddenly displaying an “I don’t care” attitude to everything, it can be a warning sign that something is a miss. Dropping out of activities. It’s certainly fine for interests to change. But if new ones don’t take their place, that too can be a warning sign. Difficulty with relationships. When children and teens are fighting with friends, or simply spending much less time than they used to with them, that’s a red flag.

Dangerous behaviour. A certain amount of risk-taking is normal, especially in teens, but if it’s new and persistent, it may not be normal. Any self-injurious behaviour, like cutting, merits professional attention right away. Persistent physical complaints, such as stomachaches, headaches, or other pain. You need to get a thorough checkup for any persistent pain. But the mind-body connection can be very strong; sometimes people who are depressed have physical pain that feels very real.

Fatigue. This is another symptom that needs to get checked out thoroughly with first looking at lifestyle, sleeping and eating choices, as there are many medical reasons why a person can have chronic fatigue. But depression is one of them.

If you see any of these in your child – or any other changes in behaviour that you can’t explain and don’t seem right to you, talk to a health professional. As with so many conditions, the sooner you catch signs of depression, the easier it is to treat without drugs.

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