Anxiety and Depression are terms that are usually associated with adults, and as parents, we might think about them as “adult problems” or as things that only adults get. Time and time again, I have encountered parents of children and teens who have presented symptoms of anxiety or symptoms of depression. These parents always ask me, “but what do they have to be worried about?”, “Why are they depressed? They have a great life”, or “They don’t have the same worries that I have”. But the fact of the matter is that anxiety and depression can affect many children and teens.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 7.1% of children between the ages of three to 17 years old have been diagnosed with anxiety, and 3.2% of children between these ages have been diagnosed with depression. So, let’s dive a bit deeper into what anxiety is, what depression is, and what parents can do to help.
What Does Anxiety Look Like in Children?
Of course, when we think about anxiety, we think about the common fears and worries that children typically face. These include being afraid of the dark, afraid of imaginary monsters in the closet or under the bed, and having difficulties separating from mom and dad in strange new environments. But anxiety becomes a “clinical problem” or a problem that needs intervention from a mental health professional when these fears and worries interfere with the child’s ability to function at school, at home, or during play and social activities. There are many different types of anxiety disorders:
- Being very afraid when away from parents (separation anxiety)
- Having extreme fear about a specific thing or situation, such as dogs, insects, or going to the doctor (phobias)
- Being very afraid of school and other places where there are people (social anxiety)
- Being very worried about the future and bad things happening (general anxiety)
- Having repeated episodes of sudden, unexpected, intense fear that come with symptoms like heart pounding, having trouble breathing, or feeling dizzy, shaky, or sweaty (panic disorder)
What Does Depression Look Like in Children?
Occasional sadness or feelings of hopelessness is a normal part of children’s functioning. However, some children feel sad or uninterested in things that they used to enjoy, or they feel helpless and hopeless in situations that they actually have the power to change. When children feel persistent sadness and hopelessness, they might be diagnosed with depression. Like anxiety, a diagnosis is made when the symptoms interfere with functioning in day-to-day activities, such as school, social activities and activities at home (self-care, interacting well with family members, etc.). Examples of behaviors often seen in children with depression include the following:
- Feeling sad, hopeless, or irritable a lot of the time
- Not wanting to do, or enjoy doing fun things
- Showing changes in eating patterns – eating a lot more or a lot less than usual
- Showing changes in sleep patterns – sleeping a lot more or a lot less than normal
- Showing changes in energy – being tired and sluggish or tense and restless a lot of the time
- Having a hard time paying attention
- Feeling worthless, useless, or guilty
- Showing self-injury and self-destructive behavior
Hidden Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression
For both anxiety and depression, an important thing to remember is that the symptoms might not look like what we expect them to look like. Sometimes kids with anxiety or depression might display increased agitation or irritability. They might seem fine when they are at home but be quiet and withdrawn at school. They might also engage in troublesome or illegal activities, which might result in them being incorrectly labelled as a troublemaker or lazy. They might be good at masking their feelings and emotions, so it is really important to have open and honest conversations about these things with your children. Always reassure them of your unconditional love for them.
What Can I Do to Help?
So, what can parents do to help kids who might be exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression? Here is a list of my top seven suggestions and strategies, to create a sense of well-being, health, and happiness. Engaging in these strategies can help to prevent anxiety and depression from worsening and can even help to set your child up for a lifetime of success.
- Sleep – sleep is one of the most important things that individuals of all ages can do to help boost their immunity and their resistance to mental health challenges as well as physical health challenges. (Learn more about sleep helping kids to get a good night’s sleep here)
- Having a healthy diet centered on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean protein sources, and nuts and seeds can help ensure the physical health of your child and teen. What you put in your body plays a really important role in how you feel and how you engage with others. It can also help to strengthen your mental health.
- Engaging in daily physical activity can help to increase those “feel-good” hormones in the brain. It is recommended that children and adults of all ages spend time moving their bodies daily.
- Spending time everyday outdoors, connecting with nature is a great way to help you to feel grounded. Being grounded is very important for people who suffer from anxiety and depression because it helps to keep them focused on the present moment instead of getting lost in worries about the future or sadness about the past.
- Practicing mindfulness or relaxation techniques helps to train the brain to stay in touch with the present moment. It can also help kids and teens to learn how to use their bodies to decrease negative emotional reactions and to increase a sense of calm. (Here you will find a list of mindfulness apps to support kids in this process)
- One of the most important protective factors against developing a diagnosis of anxiety and depression is having a positive relationship with parents. Working on your communication skills and your level of connection with your children will mean that they will be more likely to come to you with their concerns and their challenges and you will be in the best position to help them navigate the challenges of growing up.
- Encourage children and teens to find an outlet to express their creativity and strengths. Children who are involved in fun activities, such as playing sports, engaging in dance class or art class, or even doing technology-focused activities, such as coding, will likely have a higher sense of self-esteem, as they feel as though they have strengths in areas outside of school.
National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. (2021, March 22). Anxiety and depression in children: Get the facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/features/anxiety-depression-children.html