So what are the signs and symptoms that a child or adolescent is depressed? Here are some guidelines that will help you assess the situation.
Warning signs of child or teen depression
When a child exhibits any of these symptoms consistently for a period of two weeks or more, you should see a mental health professional to determine if it’s depression:
- A youth seems constantly frustrated
- They make comments about feeling hopeless
- Frequent bouts of sadness or crying
- Changes in appetite or eating patterns (some children lose their appetite, whereas others might try to drown their sorrow in food)
- A significant drop in grades at school
- Persistent lethargy, boredom, or low energy/fatigue
- An extreme sensitivity toward failure or rejection
- Increased irritability, anger or hostility
- Ongoing psychosomatic complaint, such as headaches or stomachaches
- An inability to concentrate
- Noticeable changes in sleeping patterns
- A desire to flee or escape
- Discussion of suicide or other self-destructive acts
- A general indifference toward life
- Withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy
- Social withdrawal
“Children and adolescents may first show signs of depression by being more sensitive, snappy, or irritable than usual,” says Dr. Melvyn Lurie. “Depression may come on slowly and gradually, which is why it may be spotted more easily by someone outside your immediate family who is not in close day-to-day contact with your child.” (Lurie, 2007, p. 64)
What does teen depression look like?
Teens can be naturally moody, more cranky and irritable than others. The hormonal changes and restructuring of neural networks in the brain that normally occur at this age can lead to more erratic behavior. “Adolescence may be a stormy time, and too often depressive symptoms may be misread as teenage turmoil,” state Dr. Andrew Slaby & Lili Frank Garfinkel. (1994, p. 105)
How can you tell the difference? “At its worst, teen depression can seem like adolescent moodiness on steroids,” says Harold Koplewicz, M.D., adolescent psychiatrist and president of the Child Mind Institute in New York. (Burns, 2011, p. 188) If your child’s behavior seems more moody than usual, it could mean that something else is going on.
The most telling sign of depression is a significant change in functioning across most broad aspects of a child’s life that can’t be explained by other causes. “It’s the hallmark that differentiates teenage moodiness from depression,” says psychiatrist John T. Walkup. (Bernstein, 3-6-2018) If you think your child is depressed, ask others about his or her behavior to see if they’ve also noticed a change. (Do not, however, ask their friends and siblings or anyone else who might bring your inquiries back to the child and cause an embarrassment.) Teachers, family and friends, coaches, and anyone else who is familiar with your child may be able to shed additional light on the topic.