Depression is on the rise in American teens and young adults. Adolescent girls seem most vulnerable, per research published in the Journal of Pediatrics. Data collected between 2005-2014, by Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, concluded that “the 12-month prevalence of major depressive episodes in adolescents increased from 8.7% to 11.3%.” The reasons remain under discussion. However, cyberbullying is hypothesized to be a trigger, particularly for girls.
How can parents support their child or adolescent suffering from depression? Here are some general guidelines:
Observe your child’s behavior for changes. Children with depression may demonstrate low mood, irritability, anger, fear or anxiety, mood swings, disruptive or risk-taking behavior, disobedience/ defiance/ illegal behavior, isolation, lack of self-care/ hygiene, decreased interest in previously enjoyable activities, decreased energy, increased or decreased sleep, increased or decreased appetite, and changes in friendships or family relationships. Some children turn to drugs or alcohol. Others turn to the internet for support or socialization. School performance may deteriorate, or attendance may decrease due to physical complaints or blatant truancy. Some children engage in self-harming behaviors or talk of death and dying.
Engage your child in daily conversation or other activities to open communication. Gently ask questions about your child’s change in mood, daily life/issues. Find ways for your child to communicate his or her feelings.
If your child expresses suicidal thoughts or wishes, please take him or her to the local emergency room for further evaluation.
Talk to your pediatrician or family doctor about your child’s mood or changes in behavior. They can arrange timely assistance for your child and provide you with qualified mental health professionals.
Monitor and limit phone, computer and electronics time. Watch internet history, texting, and social media. Kids often scout in the wrong places and meet the wrong people.
Ascertain healthy and consistent sleep schedules. Children and teens need about 8-10 hours of sleep per night. A regular presleep routine that does not include electronics, along with a scheduled bedtime/wake-up time encourage healthy sleep habits.
Encourage healthy eating habits. Observe behaviors at meals, such as restricting calories, or leaving the table to go to the restroom and hiding/throwing food away. Watch for weight loss, excessive exercising, or obsessive concerns with body image that may indicate an eating disorder.
Be consistent and firm with limit-setting. Maintain the same or even slightly more stringent rules with your child to maintain structure. Treat all children in the family equally. Be aware of your child’s whereabouts and safety at all times.
Safety-proof your home. Lock up all medications, alcohol and OTC medications. Secure anything that could be used as a weapon, particularly firearms.
Ensure that you are taking care of your own well-being and mental health. Depression can run in families. Resist the urge to tell your child that you know how they must feel or that you were once, or are currently, depressed. Practice listening attentively and reassuring your child that you will get them whatever help is needed. Be sure to get help for yourself as well.
Identifying child and adolescent depression and dealing with it can be overwhelming. The key is to reach out for assistance and allow others to provide their support and expertise, so that a team approach can be utilized to its fullest.
By Jennifer L. Shoenfelt, MD
Board Certified Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychiatrist
Lindner Center of HOPE (a partner to Healthnetwork Foundation)
SUSAN LOCKE is Healthnetwork Foundation’s medical director.
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