flag image

Pediatric Health

Recognizing Anxiety and Depression in Kids

What to look for, and what parents can do

November 01, 2011
Kids are going to feel sad. They're going to feel anxious. These emotions are a normal part of life. Most of the time Kids bounce back. It's when they don't that sounds an alarm.

Because anxiety and depression can affect kids of all ages, it's important parents are familiar with the symptoms of each. The very young may not have the verbal skills to express their feelings. Older children may not want to share them with their parents. Plus, anxiety and depression don't always look the way parents may expect.

What anxiety looks like

According to Susan Oxfurth, licensed social worker with North Meridian Psychiatric Associates, all kids have anxiety. They worry about school or a friend and that's normal. The difference is when it starts to interfere with their life.

She notes that anxiety disorders can come in many forms including separation anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, specific phobias, panic attacks, and social anxiety.

Most parents are familiar with separation anxiety because it affects so many young Healthy children. Some kids, however, experience it more acutely. Their symptoms may include a mirage of physical pains that appear to have no basis. Your child may check out healthy during a pediatric examination, yet his physical symptoms persist. A child may also have intense fears about the safety of his parents, refuse to go to school, throw tantrums when it comes time to separate from parents, or be overly clingy. It's normal for young kids to have some separation anxiety, it's when their anxiety interferes with their ability to function that is cause concern.

Social anxiety also affects many kids and is said to be on the rise. In general, social anxiety is a fear of meeting or talking to people to a point where the child avoids social interactions and has few friends outside his or her family. Kids with social anxiety are often anxious about speaking in front of class or being called on by the teacher or even calling people on the phone. Perhaps unsurprisingly it's become more comfortable for many kids to text than to speak.

Other symptoms of an anxious child may include frequent nightmares or general trouble with sleeping, being easily distressed, asking repetitive reassurance questions such as "What would happen if...," saying for days on end that he or she is worried, experiencing a change of appetite, fearing that they will make a mistake, and having low self-esteem.

What depression looks like

While some anxiety is normal for everyone, Oxfurth said children really shouldn't be depressed unless there's been a loss such as a death, divorce or other normal situation. If parents feel their child is depressed, then it's a red flag that something clinical could be going on and the child should get help quickly.

Jessie Fogle, licensed clinical social worker at Meridian Youth Psychiatric Center, said with depression parents may see a lot of sadness, tearfulness, crying, or irritability and anger. Children with depression often show a lack of interest in the things they used to do to have fun. Like anxiety, Fogles said kids suffering from depression may identify they feel bad physically before they are able to identify they feel bad emotionally. They may say their tummy hurts or they have a headache.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), other symptoms of depression include changes in appetite and sleep patterns, appearing to be physically sped up or slowed down, heightened tiredness or fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, difficulty thinking or concentrating, thoughts or expressions of suicide, self destructive behavior, difficulty with relationships, and even boredom.

What parents can do

The bottom line if a parent suspects their child is suffering from anxiety or depression, is to ask for support. "It's important for parents to know they are not a bad parent if their child is suffering from emotional distress," said Elizabeth C. White, licensed mental health counselor and licensed school counselor with the Well Counseling and Consulting Group.

White encourages parents to talk to teachers and counselors at the child's school, talk with his or her primary care physician, or seek the help of a private practice therapist.

Fogle believes some parents are scared to pursue outpatient counseling fearing their child will automatically be put on medication. She said that's not the case. Therapy allows the child to talk about their feelings, discuss what's stressful, and gain necessary coping skills.

Many therapists use cognitive behavior therapy to treat children with anxiety and depression. This treatment helps kids begin to learn they have the power to change their thinking. They relearn how to manage their worries, fears or sadness.

Aside from formal therapies, Oxfurth said, "The best advice for parents is to set a calm example. Don't freak out yourself. Model how to manage stress and use it as a teaching moment." She also advises parents to never dismiss a child's feelings even if the parent feels the issue has been dealt with.

Other strategies for good mental health include making sure the child is physically active, has good sleeping patterns, eats a well-balanced diet, and has a regular routine they can count on. Also, limit the child's ability to watch repetitive news and hear adults talking about news repetitively because children don't know how to process this information.

For more information about anxiety or depression, parents may consider speaking with their child's school counselor or visiting the AACAP website, www.aacap.org.

list visuals View images.
Carrie Bishop is a freelance writer and mother of two young sons whose daily antics inspire her work and life. Contact her at freelancewritercarrie@gmail.com.

Tags: Health, Kids, Parenting, Pediatric Health

Comments ()
St. Francis
Race for a Cure