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Many people instantly assume that mental health issues such as depression are strictly adult problems.
No parent likes to consider the possibility that their child or teenager is suffering from depression.
Unfortunately, Australian research shows that approximately 112,000 young people between 4-17 years suffer from a major depressive disorder.
These statistics are grim, but they shed valuable light into the suffering so many adolescents suffer.
While it may be easy to assume your child is happy and safe, take the time to consider these common symptoms of childhood depression.
Socially active and outgoing children and teenagers can abruptly withdraw from friends, teachers, and parents. This change may be so abrupt that you have no clear idea of what triggered it. Shy children who are naturally quieter may also experience social withdrawal and pulled away from close relationships. They may also actively avoid building new relationships.
As a parent, it’s worrisome to see your child distance themselves from friends, teachers, and loved ones. If you find your child spending more and more time alone, talk with them and help them work through the reasons behind their withdrawal. There may be many reasons why your child feels a need for solitude.
Emotions are tricky and unpredictable. While every child experiences occasional “blues,” persistent sadness with no clear cause is a huge red flag for depression. Younger children with depression often experience persistent crying outbursts. Older children may hide this symptom better and wait till they are alone or cry by themselves at night.
As a parent, there’s nothing worse than watching your child struggle with unpredictable emotions. It’s easy to feel helpless and lost when it comes to finding the cure for their emotional pain. Fortunately, there are genuine ways to lift this sadness and help your child carry these emotional burdens.
Irritability or Angry Outbursts
Depressed children and teenagers may also struggle with unexplainable irritability or extreme bouts of anger. Small, seemingly unimportant things may act as hidden triggers for harsh bursts hot anger. For younger children, persistent tantrums are a clear sign of uncontrollable anger and wayward emotions. Older children and teens may become violent–either to others or themselves.
Anger is a frightening emotion, not just for you as a parent; often, your child will be even more terrified. They may not even realize what’s triggering their anger. Be patient and keep yourself from lashing out in response to their anger or tantrums. The best tools you have as a parent are love and patience. Often, a loving, gentle response is the best way to help diffuse your child’s anger and help them work through these confusing feelings.
Changes in Regular Habits
Adolescents suffering from depression often experience subtle changes in their daily habits such as their diet. Their taste in food may suffer and lead to a sparse, almost nonexistent diet. Other children go the opposite direction and begin to indulge in food as a coping mechanism. Sweets and salty snacks are common comfort foods.
While not every diet change is necessarily an eating disorder, it’s still confusing and worrisome to watch your child avoid meals or struggle with their nutrition. It’s common for depressed children to struggle with weight and malnutrition. These health issues add to your worry and compound the problem if not addressed.
Similarly, changes in sleeping habits are also frustrating and concerning. Childhood depression often results in radical sleep changes. You may notice your child staying up to extreme hours of the night or avoiding sleep altogether. Depression sometimes results in severe nightmares or intense insomnia that keep your child from enjoying rest. As a result, your child may try to compensate for sleep loss by taking frequent naps during the day or retreating to their bed for long periods.
Destructive or Risky Behaviour
Self-harming or risky behaviours are among the most frightening indications of depression. These behaviours are easily hidden and often grow in secrecy. You may eventually find that your child has been cutting or burning themselves. Other common examples of self-harm include scratching or biting themselves, pulling their hair, or intentionally hitting themselves.
Teenagers often express self-harming behaviour through other means such as extreme thrill-seeking or dangerous stunts. Although some thrill-seeking is normal for teenagers, you may find your child going to dangerous extremes, often for the attention or approval of their peers.
Teenagers may also turn to drugs, alcohol, and other dangerous substances as coping mechanisms to help dull the emotional pain they feel. Self-harming behaviours offer a silent way for your child to express pain when they feel they have no other option. The longer they keep their suffering secret, the worse these destructive behaviours become.
As a parent, it’s extremely frightening to suddenly learn your child is hurting themselves. Although it’s scary, try to remain as calm as possible when addressing the issues. Don’t allow yourself to appear panicky or angry. Your child will be extremely guarded and even frightened. If they see you reacting with negative emotions, their emotions will often spiral out of control. Work toward reducing the trauma of the situation, not adding to it.
The Benefits of Family Counseling
If you feel your child or teen is experiencing any symptoms of depression, always address your concerns. Never assume they are okay or dismiss it as a “phase” they’ll grow out of eventually. Taking the time to talk with them and share your worry is the first step to finding help. Your child may not feel comfortable opening up right away. They may even try to argue that they are okay. Even if they dismiss you repeatedly, don’t give up. Sometimes finding a trained professional is the best way to allow your child to open up and share their pain.
Therapy and family counselling both offer highly successful treatment methods for children and teens struggling with depressive disorders. Children and teens who may not feel comfortable sharing their emotions and worries with close family sometimes feel more comfortable confiding in a therapist with a non-confrontational, objective stance on the situation. As their parent, try not to feel hurt if they seek to confide in others instead of yourself. Focus on simply helping them open up.
Several popular types of counselling and therapy to consider include:
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy to help them handle negative thoughts and behaviours associated with their depression.
- Family counseling to help your family grow into a safe support system.
- Play therapy for young children to express their thoughts and emotions through role-play.
- Art therapy to offer coping mechanisms and safer expressions of emotion.
Childhood depression is a vicious cycle that only grows more dangerous when left unaddressed. Statistics show that only 1 out of every 4 adolescents receive the care they need when suffering from depression. Don’t allow your child to slip through the cracks as so many others have. If your child is experiencing any symptoms of depression, help them find the care they so badly need.
© 2017 Kids First Children’s Services
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