Understanding Depression in Young People

Learn how to read the signs that tell you when your child’s moodiness is something to be concerned about.

As every parent knows, adolescence can be a roller coaster of emotions. Sadness, irritability and mood swings are part of the journey of growing up. However, when behavior becomes a pattern that lasts longer than two weeks and grows in intensity without mixed periods of joy, you may want to ask yourself, “Is this normal youth angst or the warning signs of something more serious?”

Typical Behavior
Depression-Fueled Patterns
Inconsistent sleep patterns Sleeping and napping a lot, or alternatively feeling exhausted during the day and wide awake at night. Not getting enough quality sleep can quickly impact a young person’s mood.
Appetite changes Sudden weight gain or weight loss. Eating more or less than what’s typical for your young person. Eating more high carb foods that can mimic feel-good chemicals in the brain.
Physical aches and pains When it comes to mental health, the mind/body connection is real. Depression can show up as headaches, stomachaches or muscle soreness.
Poor attention span, motivation, energy level Young people with depression can have difficulty initiating tasks, focusing their attention or completing schoolwork.  When faced with a challenge, they may lose interest quickly or give up easily.
Irritability Reading the signals of a typical tween/teen’s attitude can take some patience and further exploration.  Ask yourself if your child is grumpy in several settings – at school, with friends? Are they having mood swings for no apparent reason?
Apathy On the other end of the spectrum, a depressed child may show little emotion and may describe their feelings as numb, blank or neutral.
Feeling down in the dumps, sadness (with or without reason) There may be a valid reason to feel sad that triggers depression — or no specific reason at all. Guilt and shame are often feelings associated with depression. Questions like, “Why so sad?” and “What do you have to feel depressed about?” are generally unhelpful and can even be hurtful.
Low esteem, thoughts of worthlessness There is more to depression than just emotions. It’s important to talk and try to understand the underlying thoughts connected to sad feelings. The first step is sit and have a conversation with your child and ask what’s going on. The next step could be to seek help, talk with teachers or bring your child to a counselor or psychiatrist.

Some of the warning signs of depression include:

  • Mood changes, like persistent sadness or irritability
  • Changes in level of functioning, such as school failure
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • A loss of interest in activities that had been important
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Nonspecific signs like lack of energy, trouble concentrating and unexplained aches and pains

What Parents Can Do

If your young person is suffering from depression, the first thing you should do is to try to understand it. Learn about depression and treatment options. Discuss questions and concerns with a health care provider to find the best treatment options for your child. For mental health resources, visit our Resources page.

Sources: Stanford Children’s Health and Child Mind Institute

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