Signs Your Child May Be Depressed

It's far more common among our kids than we think

The tragic death of Robin Williams in 2014 unnerved many Americans. Sure, we were sad to lose a talented man, but on a deeper level — those who have loved ones struggling with sadness, irritability, or who are just “not themselves” have wondered if those loved ones have depression.

We are frightened because we don’t want to miss any cry for help from one who is struggling. Depression is a very serious illness.

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A recent NPR article explored the alarming rise in suicide rates, particularly among young adolescent girls who are entering puberty and experiencing depression at increasingly earlier ages. One researcher observed, “It’s usually been referred to as the storm-and-stress period of life because there’s just a lot of change happening all at one time.”

Parents of teenagers can have difficulty differentiating normal teen separation behavior from depression. Here’s how you can do this. Below are two lists of behaviors: one shows symptoms of depression (in teens and younger children), and the other shows “normal” teen behavior.

If your child had more than five of the symptoms in the depression column for longer than two weeks, he may be depressed and need help.

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Symptoms of depression to watch for:
1.) Irritable or depressed mood

2.) Decreased interest or pleasure in normal every day activities

3.) Weight loss when not dieting or sudden weight gain

4.) Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much)

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5.) Psychomotor agitation or retardation (body is hyperactive or very slow compared to normal)

6.) Fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, or a sense of inappropriate guilt

7.) Decreased ability to think, concentrate or increased indecisiveness

8.) Recurrent thoughts of suicide or death

Kids who have a family history of depression or who have prior bouts of depression are at increased risk for getting depression.

Normal teen separation behavior occurs with the following behaviors:
1.) Irritability that comes and goes or that is directed at only one person

2.) Desire to spend time alone in room for a few hours per day, alternating with engagement with family

3.) Increased sleep

4.) Staying up at night more than usual

5.) Fatigue that will go away if child increases sleep on weekends

6.) Desire to exclude parents from personal conversations

7.) Doing things that they know parents disagree with behind their backs

8.) Speaks contrary to parents and is argumentative

The main difference between depression and normal teen behavior is the severity and length of the symptoms.

All teens can be irritable, but this should come and go and alternate with nice behavior. Depressed teens can’t “snap out of” bad behavior.

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Also, all teens need more sleep and are tired a lot — but once they have a chance to catch up on sleep, the fatigue goes away. Fatigue doesn’t go away if a teen is depressed.

If you suspect that a teen is depressed, simply ask him or her. Having someone come right out and ask won’t make them depressed — and many times teens feel relief when someone recognizes that they are struggling.

If your teen has five or more of the depression symptoms, or if your gut tells you your child might be depressed, take your child to your internist or pediatrician. The doctors are very familiar with depression and should be more than willing to help your teen get back on track.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for 30 years. She is the author of the online course, “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids,” which is part of The Strong Parent Project.

meet the author

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the book “Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need” (Regnery Publishing), along with a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.

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