As a child psychiatrist, I help teenagers struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide. It’s also my job to communicate with parents during what is often a very difficult and scary time. More than anything, parents want their children to be okay, and I often encourage them by stressing that mental illness is highly treatable, and adolescents are capable of extraordinary growth. With treatment and proactive parents, hope does persist and, with some time and commitment, life can and will go on for children and parents alike.
When I do interviews or public readings parents often ask me about warning signs in children for depression and even suicidality. They may be worried about a daughter who is withdrawing, or a son who sleeps for hours on end and is failing in school. These behavioral changes can be signs of a biology gone awry and parents should take their observations seriously.
When considering whether a child is suffering from mental illness, the question you should ask yourself is, “how is my child functioning?” If your child is at an impasse, that’s when you should worry. Warning signs vary, but generally when kids can’t go to school, are up all night, are irritable, isolate or have prolonged periods of crying (such as bursting into tears and locking themselves in a room for 2-3 hours), these are signs that something is wrong and that parents need to act. Changes in eating patterns are also red flags. And if children talk about suicide or hopelessness, always take them seriously. Slow down, listen to figure out what’s going on, and mobilize to get help when needed. If another child comes to you with concerns about a friend or family member, it is important to take them seriously. Remember, it takes a lot of courage for kids to approach adults with their concerns and override the sense that they are betraying their friends.
Often parents can chalk up their child’s high-risk behavior, such as hanging out very late at night, running away, or experimenting with drugs or alcohol, to typical teenage conduct. Although it can be challenging to figure out when moodiness and risk-taking is appropriate, it’s key to decipher when a teenager is on a self-destructive path. Talking to your children with an open mind and an understanding ear, and getting outside support, is the first step in helping a struggling child.
Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series about kids and depression. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow.