Have you ever felt really, really blue and wondered if you were just sad, or actually depressed? If it is hard for us to tell the difference even in ourselves, how can we tell it in our kids?
One of my favorite books as a child was Anne of Green Gables. I knew I’d found a kindred spirit when the main character, Anne Shirley, proclaimed that she was in the “depths of despair.” I remember thinking, “Finally, here’s a girl who understands me.”
Never mind that Anne Shirley was a red-headed 11-year old orphan living on Prince Edward Island in the early 1900’s, and I was a little black girl from a small town in Alabama, growing up in the 1980’s.
Anne Shirley was a character prone to theatrics, and if I’m totally honest, I had my share of dramatic moments as a child, but what I identified with was Anne’s sadness–a sadness which was probably a precursor to my first real bout of depression years later during my freshman year of college.
So, when I started to recognize that same sadness in my own daughter, I knew I had to be open to the possibility that it was more than just pre-teen melancholy.
But how can you tell if your child is just sad or truly depressed? And what can you do in each case to help?
As parents, we never want to see our children sad, and when that sadness is prolonged for seemingly no reason, it’s easy for us to get frustrated and even start blaming ourselves.
There are steps you can take, though, to help both you and your child better navigate these difficult times. The first involves determining whether or not your child is indeed clinically depressed.
If so, there are several options available to parents, from low-dose anti-depressants to cognitive behavioral therapy. The trick is deciding which is best for your child.
And if not, I’ve got a few ideas on how to infuse a little positivity into both of your lives to help manage the inevitable cases of adolescent blues.
Distinguishing Between Unhappiness and Depression
To Thine Own Child Be True
That’s approximately how many times a day I found myself asking my daughter, “What’s wrong?”
A child, who from the time she could talk, lived up to her nickname “Gabby”, and whose very essence was joy, was now nearly mute and resigned to her closed-door bedroom as often as possible.
Initially, I thought, “Oh, well, she’s 11 now. This must all be a part of that pre-teen moodiness I was warned about.”
But days and then weeks began to go by without her cracking a genuine smile, and the car rides to school became increasingly silent. That’s when I knew something was really wrong. She just wasn’t herself.
Dr. Robert L. Hendren, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco states,
Normal sadness comes and goes and usually clearly relates to an incident… Clinical depression is like a dark cloud hanging over the child, and there’s often a pervasive feeling of gloom, irritability and loss of interest.
One of the first steps, then, to determining whether or not your child might be depressed is identifying any major changes in their personality and keeping track of how long it persists.
Keeping a journal of changes in your child’s behavior is a good way to do this:
- Make note of specific shifts in their demeanor or any signs of depression (a few of which are listed below) that he or she exhibits.
- Record any instances of negative self-talk, especially those that seem out of character for your child.
- Pay attention to any times when your child seems more irritable than others and see if you notice a pattern forming.
After making these observations myself, I soon realized that my daughter seemed most distressed right before and immediately after school. And this discovery then opened the door to at least some of what was bothering her. (More on that soon.)
In addition to general changes in your child’s personality, there are some other common signs associated with childhood depression of which you should be aware:
- Problems at school
- Low self-esteem
- Changes in sleep patterns and/or eating habits
- Inability to concentrate
- Lack of energy or caring
- Emotional outbursts
- Irritability (This can be an especially tell-tale sign for children.)
Remember, you know your child better than anyone else, so don’t underestimate any changes you see in them, even if they do fall into what might be termed typical pre-teen or teen-aged behavior.
The next step is identifying any circumstances that might escalate from sadness into a full-blown depression.
Traumatic events like the loss of a loved one can naturally lead to sadness and/or depression. But the tricky thing about depression is that it rarely has one root cause. Rather, it’s often the confluence of several different factors.
I actually saw the first signs of depression in my daughter last year when she was in the 5th grade after noticing a dramatic dip in her self-confidence when it came to her schoolwork. Her school counselor and I were able to work together to give her some tools to manage her self-doubt; when my daughter told me she felt she no longer needed to see the counselor, I thought the problem had been resolved.
Cut to one year later, my daughter was starting her first year of middle school, not only in a new school, but a new school district. And oh yeah, I bought a house, and she was faced with the prospect of moving out of the home we’d shared with her grandparents for most of her life. Add to that, her first experience with what I like to call the “mean girl phenomenon,” and we had the perfect recipe for sadness, except this time it didn’t go away so easily.
So, while I knew that this year would be full of a lot of change for my daughter, and I thought I’d prepared her for it, I also underestimated the impact it would have on her.
Every child is different, and some may be able to handle lots of change better than others, but taking into account any major changes in your life or that of your child’s is very important. It serves as an opportunity to be on the lookout for some of the symptoms mentioned above, and at the very least, it calls for regular check-ins with your child to assess how well they’re handling it all. You never know what combination of things could take your child from unhappy to depressed.
The Most Vulnerable
There is one other vital consideration when trying to determine if your child is depressed or not- genetic vulnerability. Recent studies have shown that children who have a parent or close relative who suffers from depression are more likely to battle depression themselves.
Obviously, my own experiences with depression serve as a red flag when it comes to my daughter. And as I’ve learned more about dealing with depression as an adult, I slowly began to realize that, although never clinically diagnosed, my father has been battling depression for years.
As a child, I saw his tendency to withdraw as part of his nature, and though that may be true to some degree, what I know now about other symptoms associated with this illness, like excessive sleep and fatalistic thinking (which I also saw in my dad), all point to the fact that both my daughter and I are probably predisposed to depression.
That said, it’s important to investigate your own family’s medical history. You may not suffer from depression, but do you know anyone in your extended family who does? And given the fact that depression still often has a stigma attached to it, you may not have family members who will readily share that information, so you may have to do what I did–educate yourself and be observant.
Healthy Ways to Manage Sadness and Depression
If it is Depression, Seek Professional Help
If you believe your child might be clinically depressed, seeking professional help is key. But make no mistake about it, finding the right doctor and the right treatment for your child can be a lengthy process.
Start first with your pediatrician. You’ll certainly want to rule out any physical causes for changes in your child, and that journal I mentioned earlier will come in handy. Let your pediatrician know what you’ve observed and what you’re most concerned about. Then ask him or her if a referral to a child psychologist or psychiatrist is necessary.
Secondly, don’t be afraid to seek out more than one opinion about your child’s condition or try out a few therapists. It’s important to find someone who’s not only competent, but with whom your child feels comfortable. And I personally like to work with someone who will work in conjunction with me, rather than leaving me on the periphery of my child’s treatment.
And as I mentioned before, it’s also a good idea to work with you child’s school counselor. This is often a great, cost-effective first step to determining where your child might be on the spectrum of mood disorders.
Once you’ve consulted with these professionals, together–through trial and error–you can begin to develop a treatment plan that works best for your child. And it’s always a good idea to know what options are available beforehand.
If it is Sadness, Start by Developing a Positive Mindset
If it turns out that your child is not depressed, but experiencing an unhappy time, there are lots of ways to encourage a positive outlook so as to prevent falling into an extended state of unhappiness. (In fact, there are also some studies which state that continued negative thinking can actually lead to depression.)
1. Move beyond mantras. With all of the usual ups and downs in life, it can be hard to stay positive all the time, especially for kids. And simply repeating positive statements may not always do the trick. That’s why it’s important to assess any outside influences that might affect your child’s thought process. A great resource on this topic for parents is The Wisdom to Know the Difference, which addresses both spiritual and practical ways to deal with those things that are out of our control.
I’ve found it really useful in helping me to expand my definition of being positive, which I can then model for my daughter. For example, learning to be kind to yourself when you make a mistake is a form a positivity. Here are a few other ways to inject a little positivity into your life:
- Compliment someone else. Often taking the time to find something positive in others can lift your spirits, too.
- Help someone. Removing the focus from yourself can help put things in perspective.
- Get a theme song. Download it on your phone or tablet, or just hum it to yourself whenever you need to, but make sure it’s something uplifting.
- Get an app for that. There are apps available that will send you daily inspirational quotes to your phone or inbox, which you can share with your children.
Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking by Tamar Chansky is another great book for teaching your kids to think positively.
2. Practice, practice, practice. I’ve personally come to think of having a positive attitude as a skill, and the more you practice the better you become. One of the best ways to sharpen this skill is by developing a daily ritual. Whether that be making a list of the things you’re thankful for with your child every night before bed or leaving a post-it with words of encouragement on the mirror every morning for your child to see, find something that you can do with regularity to help cultivate positive habits.
In my household, my daughter and I have a positivity jar. We write down positive things about ourselves and each other on slips of paper and place them in the jar. Then we pick one out several times throughout the week to either start the day off or encourage us when we’ve had rough one.
Sometimes the hardest thing for an unhappy child to do is pull themselves out of a loop of negative thinking. Having a plan in place for when that happens can make things a little easier, but modeling a positive attitude can also go a long way in helping your child avoid that loop altogether.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
So, now it’s time for a little self-reflection…
- Have you noticed any changes in your child that might be cause for concern?
- Have there been any recent life changes in your family? And if so, how has your child reacted to them?
- Have you or anyone else in your family had any experience dealing with depression?
- Think about a time during you own childhood when you were really sad and share that with your child as a way of meeting them where they are when they’re having a tough time.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- If you think your child might be depressed, try to journal the changes in your child’s behavior as mentioned above for at least 2 weeks.
- Based on what you observe, have a candid conversation with your child about what he or she may be feeling. They may not be ready to talk when you are, but let them know that whenever they’re ready, you’re available to listen. Don’t’ forget to check in with them at regular intervals, though.
- Choose one of the positivity rituals above or create your own and include all the members of your immediate family.
- Create a support network of family and friends for you and your child.
- If necessary, seek professional help.
Dealing with unhappiness/depression isn’t easy, and it’s an ongoing process. But hopefully, with the right tools and the right attitude both you and your child can find your way to joy again. And I hope I’ve provided a little bit of help to get you headed in the right direction.