Parents have come to me quite sad with questions about whether or not their child or teenager is possibly depressed.

First, it’s important to know that a sad child does not necessarily mean a depressed child. Depression is a biologically based illness that can run in families. Significant life events can trigger depression, including problems at school, having a chronic illness, or being victimized or bullied. It affects more than a person’s mood and lasts not for hours or days, but for weeks, months or longer.

Depression is difficult to diagnose. Sadness is not necessarily how you will know someone is depressed. A child or teen with depression may present symptoms other than sadness. They can be irritable, angry, have a falloff in school performance, or have no appetite. They can also have no energy to do things they previously liked to do, or they may over- or under-sleep.

While these signs may point to other disorders, consider depression as the cause. Otherwise, these children could go on to feel rejected and unloved. If unrecognized and untreated, depression may even prompt children  to demonstrate increased risk-taking behaviors. These include the use of drugs or alcohol, thoughts of harming themselves or even attempting suicide.

If you are concerned that your child or teen may be depressed, please talk about the situation with your child’s healthcare professional. They will already be checking for depression at annual health maintenance visits, particularly in adolescence. They will want to meet with your child. If they diagnose depression, they can also provide treatment recommendations. They will likely recommend counseling and possibly the use of a medication that can help treat this disorder.

The best way to deal with depression is prevention. Be sure to have ongoing open daily discussions with your child, so they don’t hide their feelings from you. Listen to their thoughts on how they feel, and offer your support and love to them. The more you do this, the more apt they are to accept that support. If they are depressed and they trust you, they may be more willing to get the formal treatment they need.

Most of all, parents, you need to be patient and understanding when your depressed child or teen acts out. Irritability, anger and sadness are manifestations of the disease and not signs of intentional disrespect.

Hopefully, tips like these will elevate your knowledge base when it comes to recognizing depression. Then you can point your child in the right direction to get the help needed to overcome this mental health problem.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and MyNBC 5, or visit the “First with Kids” video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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