A sad child with low energy levels, trouble sleeping or concentrating may be suffering from depression
But, for children, the mental health disorder doesn’t always present like a textbook case in an adult—and that can make it tricky to diagnose.
For young children, acting out, talking in a mean or negative way and always putting other people down can be red flags that depression may be an issue, said Justin Parker, a psychologist and clinical director of 3-C Family Services.
Parents should ask themselves, “What is [their child’s] first response to neutral or a little bit negative stimuli?” Is it automatically calling a friend “stupid?” Are they convinced that it’s always somebody else’s fault when things don’t go their way? Do they believe they have no responsibility for anything they do?
“That lack of I can do anything about my life … is something we really look strongly for,” Parker said. “Do they have the bounce back ability?”
After all, he added, “If a kid isn’t feeling good about himself, it’s likely he’s going to treat other people badly too.”
Research shows that genetics, bullying, screen time, social media use and other factors all can spark depression in a child. And it’s something parents should be aware of as rates of childhood depression and other mental health issues are on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, it’s common for children with depression to also have another condition. For example, about 74% of kids ages 3 to 17 with depression have anxiety too, according to the CDC.
For parents who are worried that their child may be depressed, Parker shared some steps they can take to help their children and determine the best course of action.
If your child calls you a stupid jerk when you greet him in the morning, don’t immediately mete out punishment. “Rather than coming down hard on them … go with, ‘Woah, I’m surprised at what just happened here,’” Parker said.
Have a conversation like this with them, said Parker: “‘All I said to you was I was happy to see you this morning, and then you responded by calling me a name. What’s going on there, my man? How did we get to that spot?’”
“Get really, really curious as a parent,” he said.
In the heat of the moment, your child may just tell you to shut up, but the dialogue will give you an opening later to talk to them more about the moment. At that point, Parker recommends asking them, “What can I do for you?”
“The idea of what can I do for you really can flip the script for a kiddo like this,” he said.
Even if you’re not worried that your child may be depressed, Parker said that parents must take the time to place their focus exclusively on their child on a regular basis (and without a phone in hand).
Instead of open-ended questions about their day, ask them about what they’re interested in. If your child’s a gamer, for example, what new game is he playing? Does he play it with other people? Those regular conversations can be openings for children to mention their own feelings and worries.
“You’ll be shocked at what kind of world that will open up” he said. “You really get to have a longer conversation to see how they’re doing. Asking about things they want to talk about and then listening to what they say is incredibly important.”
Your child’s mental health, of course, is a lifelong concern. And, in some cases, they’ll need the support of a mental health professional. How do you know when to go for more help?
“What I say to parents is, ‘Trust your instincts,’” Parker said. “You know your child better than anybody else in this world. If something is not right, there’s been a change in behavior, it was not this way six months ago, there’s something major in this child’s life, I need to get to the bottom of it, that’s the time.”
Parenting a child with a mental health disorder isn’t always easy—and it can even be terrifying at times. Give yourself some grace.
“Be kind to yourself and acknowledge things you really are doing well,” he said. “When you have a child who’s acting sad or angry, it’s easy to get caught up in that’s all the child is doing, they’re always mad. That’s really unlikely. For most of your child’s life, 90-plus percent of it, they are doing just fine. It’s that extra 10% that’s getting us in trouble. So make sure we’re taking perspective and looking at the good along with the things we want to improve.”