With the effects of COVID-19 weighing heavy, parents should be on the lookout for signs of depression in children and teens.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 3 million kids ages 6-17 experienced depression. As a leading cause of disability, depression can impact a child’s educational and societal functioning. It can lead to substance abuse, early pregnancy and even suicide. Recognize the signs and intervene early to provide the best treatment for your child.
Children 12 and Under
For children 12 and under, symptoms of depression can be hard to spot. Common signs include irritability, tantrums, refusing to do certain activities or frequent complaining of stomachaches or headaches. As opposed to older children, younger kids tend to be more direct with their words. They may directly voice suicidal language, such as “I want to die” or “I don’t want to be here anymore.” Younger children are especially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic: Fewer events and activities to look forward to, changes to their schedule and school day and missing friends and family can all take a toll on children’s health.
Symptoms of depression in teenagers may be more obvious. Depression can affect their appetite, sleep schedule, hygiene and mood. One of the key signs of depression among teens is a lack of concentration and poor focus, which can often be mistaken for ADHD. Other signs include anger, irritability, sensitivity and a negative outlook. There may also be obvious changes to their routine. A typically neat child’s room may suddenly be messy, or a typically energetic child may now appear tired or disinterested.
Parents play a significant role in helping teenagers’ symptoms. Often, conversation around these issues can appear manipulative or strict, with the parent in the driver’s seat of discussion. Make sure your teenager knows that even though you are their parent, you are not the expert; you just want to listen.
What Parents Can do
Thankfully, depression is highly treatable, with many resources available to help. As a parent or caregiver, you set the tone and routine for a child’s day-to-day. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been fewer things for kids to look forward to, such as seeing friends or trips to grandma’s house. Creating pandemic-friendly outlets for kids who are not yet eligible for or fully vaccinated can be simple and fun: Encouraging outdoor play, hosting family game night, scheduling a certain day each week to bake cookies together and creating jobs for kids to be involved in are all examples of activities that can boost a young person’s outlook and mood.
Another action item parents can take is to lead by example. Getting good rest, eating healthy, maintaining a positive attitude and making good use of spare time set the tone for your children. Separating schoolwork from other activities is also important. Make sure your child isn’t completing schoolwork in bed and try to model this behavior yourself.
Being an involved, engaged parent can help a child who may be struggling. Parents should focus on thoughtful engagement: Ask children about what’s going on in their life, take an active interest and discuss phone use and what they may be seeing online. If possible, schedule a set mealtime each day where the family can talk without distractions. Give your children space and time to talk about what may be affecting them, without judgment.
While some symptoms of depression can be lessened at home with improved eating, sleeping, schedules and open conversation, sometimes a child’s depression may require medical treatment. Thankfully, depression is highly treatable. Your child’s primary care doctor is there to help and may recommend a child psychiatrist for further care. A child psychiatrist can develop a treatment plan for depression, provide guidance on how to prevent worsening symptoms and offer active therapy or medication to lessen its course.
Occasionally, milder symptoms of depression can get better with no treatment at all. However, we want to prevent disabilities associated with depression and any worrisome outcomes. Parents should watch for signs, create space for discussion, play an active role in their children’s lives and seek medical help when needed. Talk to your child’s primary care doctor or a child psychiatrist if you notice new or worsening symptoms of depression. There are better days ahead and many helpful resources.