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How To Recognize Depression In Young Kids, And What To Do About It

Even in the best of times, growing up is a roller coaster. And if you decide to take them to Six Flags — whoa, look out. At some point on the road to adulthood, many kids experience some amount of anxiety or depression. But you don’t need to be a loosely credentialed daytime therapy show host to recognize what’s going on with your kid. Vicki Botnick, a family therapist who specializes in depression, knows the difference between your teen listening to a lot of Elliott Smith and your 6-year-old displaying signs of something serious. Here are 6 things to look for:

Know The Difference Between Depression And Anxiety
Kids feeling anxiety often appear scared, worried, or generally overwhelmed, Botnick says. Which may describe every day in your house. The key difference is how much they’re overreacting or how quickly they become panicked.

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Typically depression — especially in older kids and teens — will often appear as sadness, pessimism, low self-esteem, physical or mental exhaustion, or lack of interest in the activities that they usually enjoy. These are the kids that are isolating themselves, but not in a “Oh, good they’re playing in their room” kind of way. And there’s crying. Lots of crying.

On the extreme end, if they’re talking about suicide, or self-harming, that is the reddest of flags. One last thing to note: A past history of depression or alcoholism in your family can also be a risk factor.

Depression Looks Different In Young Kids
Up until puberty, when hormones start rampaging through their bodies like a middle school Hulk, these feelings often show up as frequent irritability. “In little ones, [depression] sometimes doesn’t look like sadness; it looks like anger or outbursts and crankiness,” says Botnick. But try a Snickers first.

For Any Age, Be Alert For Sudden Changes
Regardless of age, look for sudden changes in your kid — if there seems to be a cascade of those changes, that’s a strong signal that whatever is going on might be more than just youthful agita. A kid who suddenly isn’t sleeping well might just have some insomnia; a kid who isn’t sleeping well and has also suddenly gone from “Taylor Swift is a god!” to “God, I can’t stand Taylor Swift!” may have some larger issues at play.

Signs of depression or anxiety may occur in conjunction with other symptoms. If they’re not sleeping well, that might be temporary insomnia — or being 4. But, Botnick says sleeplessness alongside other depressive signs is more concerning. If your kid used to love playing Taylor Swift, but suddenly they seem to have lost all interest in T-Swizzle, that’s not just a sign their taste in music is getting better.

This Is No Time To Be Coy
Try to open up a conversation, and don’t worry about tiptoeing around the issue. “I’m a fan of being pretty straightforward with kids. It’s less confusing for them and I don’t think it’s harmful,” says Botnick. Ask them what they’re feeling, and check in with teachers, siblings — anyone in their daily orbit — to find out what they’ve noticed.

Start By Saying This
Try to work into the conversation with a question, like “I noticed you seem sad lately. Is that how you’re feeling?” Or, “You used to want to play with Tommy but you don’t want to go to his house anymore. Has something changed?” For adolescents, if things look bad don’t BS about it.  “Ask teens straight out about suicidality. Let them know you’re concerned and see how much access they have to dangerous stuff [like weapons or drugs.]” says Botnick.

Strike The Right Tone To Get An Honest Answer
Rather than doing an eggshell dance around the difficult issue, strike the right tone. “If a child senses you’re scared or angry or judgmental, they might tailor their answer to please you,” says Botnick. If they can tell that you’re going to accept whatever their honest answer is, they’re more likely to stop concealing.

But, there are those kids who don’t want to talk to their parents — even after you told them you’re “cool dad.” In that case, a psychologist or teacher can be a surrogate.The can also start working things out through activities like art, music, or interpretive skateboarding. Make sure they have access to activities they love and that they know it’s okay to take care of their feelings that way. That ollie-impossible looked cathartic.

Don’t Be An Ostrich
“Some people try to avoid discussing it because they think that will make it worse,” says Botnick. But she says that talking about depression and anxiety will lessen the burden. Take their feelings seriously and don’t criticize the kid for feeling the way they do.

Kids may feel that they’ll be seen as weak if they’re upset about something, and that’s not helping. There’s no crying in baseball, but there’s a lot of it in childhood. At the same time, don’t try to stuff down the feelings with soccer practice. Botnick says being distracted might help, but if it isn’t working, stop pushing your agenda and realize that everybody hurts, sometimes.