Dear Family Coach, Could My Child Be Depressed?

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Short answer, yes. However, it's pretty rare for really young kids and almost always related to something bad happening for example in relationship to a traumatic event.

Anxiety, however, is much more common in kids, especially oldest kids or ones who are really smart. Since they aren't necessarily mature enough to process the things they think about they worry instead and it can present like avoidance or even anger. 

I always recommend encouraging kids to express their feelings, by helping them name what they feel and, if possible, connect the feeling to whatever triggered it.  For younger kids you can do this with a feelings chart where they can point to face pictures that relate to the emotions they may be experiencing.

Depression, which is a medical condition that should only be diagnosed by a qualified mental or physical health professional, is the prolonged state of emotional or mental discomfort which causes physical and psychological symptoms and impact behavior.  Most often we think of it as an adolescent or adult condition and it can be associated with suicidal thoughts in some people. 

Parents are right to be concerned if they notice changes in their child's functioning levels and being aware of changes is the best place to start. 

The 3 questions I always ask parents to help determine if there could possibly be concern for depression are:

  • Have you noticed a significant change in emotions for 2 weeks or longer? This includes extreme anger, fits of tears that are unexplained, or even being more restless or irritable.
  • Are there physical symptoms present? Anything from pain without a medical cause to lack of appetite or overeating.
  • Has there been a significant change in behavior? Withdrawal from normal or previously enjoyable activities, avoiding friends or significant changes in grades can all signal possible warning signs.

A yes to all three of these questions is a good indicator that your child is in need of support sooner, rather than later.  However, if you notice some, but not all of these symptoms, there may be emotional distress present that can be a risk factor for depression and you might still need to provide them with tools to manage their needs.  Start by talking with your child about causes of stress they are currently experiencing and what coping skills they routinely use to address them.  When in doubt, professional support can start with your child's pediatrician and is usually very effective in helping your child bounce back.