We live in a world with increasing levels of anxiety among adults. While more adults are feeling anxious for a variety of reasons, we tend to forget that anxiety, stress, and even depression can also affect children and teens. Some practitioners say that even children as young as preschoolers can suffer from depression.
Depression tends to affect teens more significantly than younger children because of hormonal changes. When teens hit puberty, the changes happening in their bodies can lead to issues with their minds as well. Stress, anxiety and depression have become common among teenagers.
However, with rising rates among teens, we are also seeing a similar rise in children. It is normal for kids to be sad occasionally, but it is important to know the difference between normal sadness and something more serious. Usually, depression occurs in children who have anxiety disorders. Anxiety can present as social anxiety or nervousness when forced to interact with other children, phobias, separation anxiety, or panic disorders. Most kids will cry and be upset the first time they are dropped off at school or while making new friends. This is normal. However, a child experiencing several of these issues or extreme instances of anxiety could be cause for concern.
This anxiety can turn into depression. It is important for adults to be aware of potential symptoms of depression in children since most children will not be able to accurately articulate what is happening inside their minds. Some symptoms of depression in children are: sadness, excessive crying, a change in energy levels (from high energy to very low energy), a change in sleeping patterns, a change in eating habits, constant complaints of headaches or stomachaches, poor concentration, talk of running away from home, talk of self-harm or suicide, a lack of confidence when trying new things, bed wetting, or bad dreams. Many of these are things that children naturally experience. However, if a child is experiencing many of these symptoms for an extended period of time, this could mean that something is wrong.
As an adult in the child’s life, it is important to follow your gut. If you feel that something is wrong with your child, you should look for answers. Many parents start with the pediatrician. The pediatrician may check for physical illnesses, but may not be trained to look for depression or anxiety in young children. If you aren’t satisfied with the response of the pediatrician, seek help from a mental health professional who will be able to more accurately tell you if what is happening with your child is a mental health issue.
One option that most likely will be presented in the case of severe anxiety or depression in a child is medication. There is still a significant concern in giving anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants to young children since it could potentially alter their brain chemistry. This is a serious decision that should be discussed with your child’s psychologist or psychiatrist. It is important to consider this option though because in many cases medication can significantly diminish or alleviate symptoms. However, there are alternatives to medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a commonly used technique for treating depression and anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a way of essentially rewiring thought processes in the brain. In many cases, depression and anxiety can lead to negative thought patterns. These negative thoughts play on repeat in the brain, like watching a loop of depressing or anxious thoughts all day every day. In CBT, the patient works with a therapist to break these negative thought cycles and change them into positive thought cycles. The therapist may also assign the child “homework” to help break behavioral patterns.
For instance, if a child is struggling with social anxiety, the therapist may ask him or her to talk to someone new at school as homework. This new interaction would then be discussed during the next therapy session, to ideally show the child over time that social interaction doesn’t need to cause anxiety. It has been found that CBT can be just as effective as medication in many cases. It does involve a lot of patient interaction, however, which can be difficult in some cases where social isolation is a factor.
Another way to help tackle anxiety and depression in kids is by creating a routine. Children thrive in predictable situations. Stress or depression can be caused by big life changes, such as a move or parents getting divorced. Creating a consistent routine for the child can lessen the effects of these changes. Children should wake up and go to bed at the same time, in order to encourage regular sleep cycles. Meals should be served at the same time as well. Nutrition can also play a factor in mental health, so the child should be eating healthy, nutritious food.
Children also should get regular exercise. Sixty minutes a day is recommended for children since they generally have much higher energy levels than adults. It is also important for the child to know they have social and emotional support. Schedule in time each day to talk to your child. Check in and ask how things that happened in the day made them feel. Although your child may be resistant at first, over time this communication can help him or her begin to discuss issues out loud, instead of playing them over and over in their heads.
Meditation has also been found to be effective for anxiety and depression. There are tons of meditation apps that you can download for your phone or tablet. Headspace, an app that provides guided meditation, even has meditations for children that can help them deal with a variety of topics. Meditation can help children begin to recognize the physical symptoms associated with anxiety, for example, a faster heart rate or feeling out of breath, and learn to calm themselves down physically and mentally. It also can help teach children how to quiet their minds to stop the constant flow of negative thoughts.
Another type of therapy that is becoming more recognized is bibliotherapy. Many children just want a distraction from what is going on in their lives or brains. Books can give children this distraction. Reading to or with your child can help them escape the loop of negativity playing in their heads. They get the chance to become immersed in a different world. They can be in the mind the character for a while, instead of being themselves. This also is beneficial for kids suffering from social anxiety, as it can help them feel less alone. They can spend some time in a world where they have friends.
Whether a child is anxious, over-stressed, or depressed, it is important to look for the symptoms and seek help if necessary. Adults should also remember to let kids be kids, and that over scheduling or putting too much pressure on a child can lead to stress, anxiety or even depression.
Kids should be allowed to play and explore, without worrying about making mistakes. However, you should never ignore your gut feeling if you feel that your child is struggling with something more severe.