Have you noticed a shift in behaviour of your child or teen? Does he or she seem to be struggling more, appearing to feel either sad and tired, or tense and worried? Or perhaps a combination of all these things? It is possible that they’re dealing with depression and/or anxiety. Then again, it’s also possible that this is just a ‘normal’ time that many youths go through. Still, your best course of action is to become more informed on youth mental health issues, and then make a plan for how you can best help as a parent. Read on to find out to do both.
Is It Depression? Anxiety? Both? Neither?
Let’s start with “neither.” Or at least, what isn’t necessarily depression or anxiety, but rather the “normal” symptoms of youth and growing up, the kinds of things that we probably went through at that age, the same things that millions of youth do and feel at any given time.
Nobody ever said that being a teen or pre-teen is easy. Wait… come to think of it, a lot of people say this in relation to their own stresses in life: work, finances, relationships, health, etc. But they shouldn’t! We might look back on the good times with a sense of nostalgia. Was it all good? Certainly not! Think of all the struggles you faced: the pressure to fit in, to get good grades, to be liked and loved and appreciated. And what about all those fears? The fear of failure, of not meeting your parents’ expectations… even fears about the world we live in (war, famine, crime, terrorism, etc.). Who among us didn’t have at least some of those when we were young(er)? And how did that make us feel? In concert with all those hormones kicking in, the emotions are exacerbated. Fears, concerns and pressures are all magnified. Even the slightest, little thing can set someone off at that age. Rational behaviour is definitely rationed in short supply in youth!
So how, then, do we know when what a child or teenager is experiencing goes beyond the usual issues?
Depression & Anxiety are Deeply-Rooted Issues to be Tracked and Treated Over Time
What we’re talking about is more than moodiness or melancholy. It’s bigger than the sadness one might experience when losing a pet or grandparent. It’s something deeper than being angry about a breakup or a fight with a friend, or being tense and nervous about a math exam or a hockey game. Depression and anxiety are longer lasting, more deeply-rooted issues.
The first signs to watch for are sustained levels of emotions and/or behaviour. If your son or daughter has been feeling this way (depressed, sad, tense, upset, etc.) for months or even years, this would be of more concern. If “acting out” takes place on a regular basis, more than just a one-off or a random event, that’s worth addressing. What are of the ways in which teens might act out?
- Violence, bullying, etc.
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Drop in grades and/or school participation & effort
- Issues with friendships
- Running away
- Internet, smartphone or video game addiction
- Reckless behaviour
- Eating disorders
- Low self esteem
- Self-injury or suicide attempts
Suicide: What to Watch For, What to Do
While these are all areas of concern, the last one, suicide, is of course at an elevated level. If you suspect your child or teen is contemplating suicide, please get in touch with the crisis centre near you as quickly as possible.
What kinds of signs should you be on the lookout for, with regard to suicide or suicidal behaviour?
- Talking or joking about committing suicide
- Saying things like, “I’d be better off dead,” “I wish I could disappear forever” or “There’s no way out”
- Speaking positively about death or romanticizing dying (“If I died, people might love me more”)
- Writing stories and poems about death, dying, or suicide
- Engaging in reckless behavior or having a lot of accidents resulting in injury
- Giving away prized possessions
- Saying goodbye to friends and family as if for the last time
- Seeking out weapons, pills, or other ways to kill themselves
With that in mind, what can you do?
A good start is to ask questions. According to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, these are some good questions to ask:
- Are you thinking of suicide?
- Have you tried to end your life before?
- Have you been feeling left out or alone?
- Have you been feeling like you’re a burden?
- Do you feel isolated and or disconnected?
- Are you experiencing the feeling of being trapped?
- Has someone close to you recently died by suicide?
- How are you thinking of ending your life?
- Do you have the means to do this (firearms, drugs, rope)?
- Have you been drinking or taken any drugs or medications?
- How have you been sleeping?
- Are you feeling more anxious than usual?
- Who can we contact that you feel safe and/or comfortable with?
Again, if you suspect suicidal tendencies or the possibility that someone you love might contemplating suicide, please get in touch with expert help ASAP. Concerned about overacting? When it comes to suicide and (literally!) matters of life and death, it’s always better to err on the side of caution.
Depression and Anxiety, Defined
Let’s take a step back and define depression and anxiety. Our sister team at Capital Choice Counselling wrote an article recently about how depression and anxiety, and how they may seem different but in fact are two sides of the same coin. So there’s no need to wonder if it’s one OR the other that you’re dealing with, when in actuality it’s entirely possible that your child could have depression AND anxiety. Again, the point is that these are long-term disorders, not something that your son or daughter can “snap out of” or otherwise “get well soon.” Diagnosis takes time, and the road to recovery and success is an even longer one.
Depression: Not Just Feeling “Down” or “Sad”
According to teenmentalhealth.org, “depression is a dysregulation of the brain function that control emotions (or moods). It is a mood disorder characterized by intense and persistent negative emotions. These emotions negatively impact people’s lives, causing social, educational, personal and family difficulties.” Depression can be triggered by an event or series of events, but it is highly unlikely to have been caused by these events. What are some symptoms of depression?
One doesn’t have to exhibit all of these to be considered depressed. If it’s just one or two symptoms, however, we might not be talking about depression but rather a more isolated issue. Teens with depression tend to present irritability and anger; unexplained aches and pains; extreme sensitivity to criticism; and withdrawal.
Anxiety: A General Term with All Kinds of Extended Issues
Anxiety, the other side of the depression coin, can take several different forms.
The Anxiety & Depression Association of America (AADA) says that Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by “persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. People with GAD may anticipate disaster and may be overly concerned about money, health, family, work, or other issues. Individuals with GAD find it difficult to control their worry. They may worry more than seems warranted about actual events or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.”
What we’re looking for in teens, remember, is more prolonged and excessive worry that what the typical teen already manifests. There are other types of anxiety, such as Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, etc. You can read more on the AADA site, or discuss with one of our expert counsellors in further detail.
How Can You Help?
Psychologist Daniel Daly, who runs the 24/7 youth hotline at Boys Town, says there are immediate steps parents can take.
Let kids know it is okay to feel upset. Help kids identify their feelings, and let them know that life will go on and that they can learn to study, laugh and have fun again.
Designate more family time together. Organize family outings and least two meals per week — without the distraction of electronic devices. Building and nurturing personal relationships helps young people express themselves and know they are heard.
Beyond that, here are some communication tips from many sources that you may want to heed.
- Trust your intuition
- Be a good listener
- Acknowledge your son or daughter’s feelings
- Be gentle but persistent (don’t shy away)
- Be there for them… be available
- Make sure they don’t become isolated or cut off from the world
- Encourage them to be physically fit and active
- Promote a good diet and make sure they eat regularly
As a parent, you’re well aware that your biggest role in the life of your child(ren) is to ensure their well-being. Depression and anxiety can have a tremendous impact on this, so by arming yourself with information and strategy, you’re serving your purpose well.
For more ideas and constructive tools and discussion for you and your child or teen with depression and anxiety in Ottawa, get in touch with Ottawa Youth Counselling.