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While it’s normal for tweens and teenagers to feel sad from time to time, depression causes such intense low moods that they impact on a young person’s ability to do normal everyday tasks and enjoy activities and hobbies that were once important to them.

It’s important to know what to do if your child is depressed. But remember, there may be other reasons why your child is moody or withdrawn, they may be a shy child or they may have an anxiety phobia, so don’t jump to conclusions, read on to find out more about the various symptoms of depression.

Is your child having more lows than highs lately? Are these lows are happening more frequently? It is important to know that this could be a sign of depression.

What does depression feel like for your pre-teen?

To help you understand what they may be going through, here are three descriptions of what depression actually feels like for a teenager:

  1. For young people, depression can feel like they have a sieve in their head. This sieve allows all positivity to wash away, but holds onto any negative thought, comment or experience, which the teenager then focuses on and magnifies.
  2. A teenager may feel like they are wearing a mask in front of friends, as they believe they have to cover up their real mood so they don’t become a burden. Wearing this mask can be emotionally exhausting, so they often can’t keep it up at home.
  3. Many young people describe depression as feeling like they are being tortured in their head. Anything that they hear instantly gets turned into something negative. For example, if a doctor tells them that their depression is treatable, they believe that they will be the exception to the rule – the one person this doctor can’t help.

Signs that your child may be depressed

Some of the most common signs and symptoms of depression to look out for include:

Psychological symptoms of depression:

  • persistent sadness, or low mood
  • anger and irritability
  • crying more than usual
  • being highly sensitive to bad news or rejection
  • low self-esteem
  • feeling worthless or guilty
  • feeling empty or numb
  • indecisiveness
  • poor concentration
  • self-harming
  • suicidal thoughts
  • drug or alcohol abuse

Social symptoms of depression:

  • lacking interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • poor performance and behaviour at school or college
  • social withdrawal

Physical symptoms of depression:

  • frequent headaches and stomach aches
  • unexplained digestive problems
  • eating more or less than usual
  • insomnia, or sleeping more than usual
  • exhaustion
  • restlessness
  • lethargy

I think my child is depressed – what are the next steps?

Talk to your child

If you’re worried, sit down with your child and calmly explain that you’re concerned because they don’t seem themselves. If they’re willing to talk, find out how they are feeling. Ask what is troubling them, and let them know you’re always there to talk. If your teenager doesn’t want to talk to you, encourage them to speak to someone else they trust. This could be a family member, another parent or a teacher.

Take them seriously

If you haven’t experienced depression yourself, it can be difficult to understand what your child is going through. Something what doesn’t seem to be a big deal to you could be a major issue for your child. So it is important to take them seriously and avoid being critical or judgmental.

Be open and listen

If your child does wants to talk to you about how they’re feeling, be open with them and listen to what they have to say. This lets them know that it’s OK to talk about their problems and that they don’t have to deal with their struggles alone.

Learn the symptoms

By familiarising yourself with the symptoms of depression will help you to empathise with your son or daughter. It will also mean that you can spot when they’re going through a difficult time. This way you can offer them support at the right time.

Reduce risks

Give your child the phone numbers for organisations such as LifeLine, and encourage them to call if they need to. You could also give them useful apps to look at. One such as Headspace.

If they have thoughts about harming themselves, ask them to share these thoughts with you in a way they feel comfortable. This can help keep them safe. They could write their thoughts down, send them in a text message or email. Encourage them to talk to you about them when they’re feeling calm and perhaps distracted with an activity.

Things you can do to reduce risks include locking away any medication and asking the young person what websites they are accessing online.

It’s important to establish the best way that you can support your teenager.

Ask them what you can do to help; they may just want hugs, a distraction such as watching a film with you, or not to be left alone at night.

Seek help

It’s crucial to seek professional help if you think your child is struggling with depression. This will ensure that they receive the help they need to prevent their depression from becoming worse. Make an appointment to see your GP; they will be able to recommend the next steps to getting support.

Also, reassure your child, especially your teenager, that depression is treatable. Advise them that it would be worth taking them to a doctor to find out if they have depression, and if so, to get them the right support. Make sure your child eats a healthy diet as this is proven to assist with depression.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg is a child and adolescent psychiatrist working at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg