When you think of someone struggling with depression, what comes to mind? You probably imagine someone who is sad, withdrawn, has low energy and is constantly tired, or has a decreased mood. And you would be right. These are some of the most common symptoms of depression in children and adolescents.
Yet some symptoms of depression are less common and that makes them harder to identify. This is especially true in children and adolescents because they often experience depressive symptoms in a different way than adults. Because these signs are less intuitive than some of the more common symptoms, they are easy to overlook.
Know and watch for the following signs; it may help you catch the early stages of depression in your child or adolescent.
Young people who are struggling with depression can have trouble focusing. They may find it difficult to concentrate on conversations or tasks. They may also have trouble remembering conversations or events from the past because they were struggling trying to concentrate at the time. For children and teens this difficulty concentrating can also affect their academic performance. If they have trouble focusing during class, their grades may suffer. Pay attention if your child seems to lose focus more easily, and especially if he starts getting lower grades than normal. This can be a signal that something’s wrong.
A decrease in appetite is a common symptom of depression, but some people actually experience the reverse and find they are hungrier than usual. Along with this particular symptom, keep in mind that individuals with depression can also experience weight loss or weight gain while going through a depressive episode. If your child has experienced a change in weight and is exhibiting other signs of depression, a medical checkup and a consultation with a mental health professional can help determine the cause.
Increased Motor Activity
Decreased motor activity — moving more slowly than usual — is a common sign of depression. But, similar to having an increased appetite, some people feel more agitated during a depressive episode. Instead of feeling like they are moving through quicksand (a common description of depression), they are jittery and more active than usual. If you notice an increase in motor activity in your child, it could be cause for concern.
Physical Aches and Pains
Depression is a mental illness, yet it can be expressed through physical symptoms. Some people experience aches and pains during a depressive episode. Keep in mind that children and adolescents may not have good insights into what they are experiencing; they may complain of “not feeling well,” being achy, or having a stomachache instead of identifying more common symptoms of depression.
Feeling sad, hopeless, or guilty are often the emotions we think of when it comes to depression. Some people, however, become unusually irritable. This is often a symptom of depression in children and adolescents. Your child may be acting more on edge than usual, may be quick to snap, or might be upset more easily. View this type of irritability as different from “typical” teenage moodiness when it is accompanied by other symptoms of depression.
Changes in Sleep
And finally, changes in sleep patterns can be a clue that your child is depressed. While a common sign of depression is feeling overly tired and wanting to sleep all the time, the opposite can be true for some children and young adults. They may have trouble falling asleep at night, or find themselves waking up frequently. Some people find that they wake up very early in the morning and can’t fall back asleep. Stay alert to changes in sleeping patterns in your child, especially if they exhibit any other signs of depression.
It’s important to be aware of all of the signs of depression, both the obvious and the not-so-obvious. When you know what signs to look for, you’ll be better able to spot potential problems so you can seek treatment for your child or adolescent sooner. If you can catch depression in its early stages, your child’s therapist can help them learn strategies to treat their depression and ideally prevent its progression.
Keep in mind that if your child has just one of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child is suffering from depression. That’s why it’s important to consult with a competent therapist who can look at these symptoms and understand the larger picture to make a diagnosis.
Julia Hogan, LCPC
Julia Marie Hogan is a counselor in Chicago and owner of Vita Optimum Counseling & Consulting, LLC. She also leads workshops and writes on topics related to self-care, relationships and mental health. Her book, It's Ok to Start with You is all about the power of embracing your authentic self through self-care. She is passionate about empowering individuals to be their most authentic selves. You can find more of her writing online at juliamariehogan.com and follow her on Instagram
The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.