Recognizing Childhood Depression and Anxiety
Parents often mistake depression in children for moodiness.
Signs Your Child Is Depressed
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, any of these symptoms may mean your child is depressed:
- Frequent sadness, tearfulness, and/or crying
- Decreased interest in activities or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities.
- Persistent boredom; low energy. "The hallmark of depression is this inability to have joy," Dolgan says. "There's this low energy, this shutting away, shutting down."
- Social isolation, poor communication. "A child given the opportunity to play with friends who prefers to be alone" may be depressed, Dolgan says.
- Low self-esteem and guilt. "The kids feel they're not good or not worth very much," Dolgan says. "I often ask, 'Are you important to somebody?' Depressed kids say no."
- Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
- Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
- Difficulty with relationships
- Frequent complaints of physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches. "A lot of these kids have physical illnesses for no real cause, especially stomachaches and headaches," Dolgan says.
- Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school.
- Poor concentration
- A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
- Talk of or efforts to run away from home
- Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self-destructive behavior
"You know your child. You know when things have changed. When you get that red flag, do something. Don't ignore it," Benoit says.
"Go with your gut feelings. If you have a worry, let's get it checked out," Dolgan says. "Good parents are tuned in to their kids, but they don't always know what the signals mean."
Most parents begin by taking their child to a pediatrician, although some go directly to a child psychologist or child psychiatrist.
But beware of an immediate jump to treatment. Benoit, Dolgan, and Koplewicz each stress that the most important first step is to get a proper diagnosis.
The Key: Diagnosis
"In real estate they say the most important three things are location, location, and location. In the depressed child it is diagnosis, diagnosis, and diagnosis," Koplewicz says. "Before we treat a child who has a sad demeanor or a demoralized state, we want to make sure that child really has depression. The way to do that is to ask your pediatrician or psychiatrist or psychologist, 'What is my child's diagnosis? Explain it so I can understand, and tell me what are my treatment options.'"