How to identify signs of depression in your child or teen

How to identify signs of depression in your child or teen

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a major toll on the mental health of children and teens. Prolonged breaks from routines, missed life events and isolation are not easy things for an adult to endure, let alone a child, many of whom are too young to even understand the reasoning behind safety measures.

“Between the pandemic, academic instability and social difficulties, school-aged children are experiencing emotional dysregulation at an alarming rate,” says Dr. Kathleen Ares, a neuropsychologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital. This dysregulation is leading to depression in some children and teens.

Dr. Ares explains the signs and symptoms of depression in children and adolescents can vary based on age, gender and by child.

“Depression in children may not present in the ‘typical’ way it’s often portrayed in movies and on television,” she says. “The child may not have experienced a traumatic event or life stressor that contributed to the development of depressive symptoms.”

She says children tend to externalize their depressive symptoms as anger, irritability and temper tantrums.

“These behavioral difficulties may lead to the child being labeled as ‘the bad kid’ or the one who is always getting in trouble. As such, they receive more negative attention, which in turn exacerbates their negative view of themselves.”

Parents of teenagers may have an even more difficult time identifying signs of depression.

“Parents may overlook symptoms as ‘teenage moodiness,’” Dr. Ares says. “Teenagers often do not feel comfortable opening up to their parents but turn to their friends for help instead. However, as teenagers struggle with depressive symptoms, they may become more withdrawn, closed off and lose interest in previously enjoyable tasks. Their grades may start to decline because they lack motivation, and you may notice increased fatigue.”

No matter a child’s age, Dr. Ares emphasizes the importance of them feeling they have someone to turn to. “This is someone they can trust who is the right ‘fit’ for them. That may be the school social worker, a team coach or a licensed mental health professional.”

Worried your child is experiencing depression? Talk with their pediatrician, who can help connect you with the right mental health professional.

“One of the most effective therapies for depression is known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps children learn how to identify the thoughts that are contributing to their depressive mood, increase their emotional awareness and develop coping strategies,” Dr. Ares says. “Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have also been shown to help teenagers with depression. However, should parents hear or suspect that their child or teenager may engage in self harm, take them to the closest emergency room.”

Now is the perfect time to make an appointment with a primary care physician. Whether you live in Illinois or Wisconsin, it’s easy to find a doctor near you. 

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About the Author

Holly Brenza
Holly Brenza

Holly Brenza, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator on the content team at Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her free time, Holly enjoys reading, watching the White Sox and Blackhawks, playing with her dog, Bear and running her cats' Instagram account, @strangefurthings.