Our daughter was seven when she came to us with a note she wanted to give her teacher. She’d forgotten a book at school and couldn’t do an assignment. My heart sunk when I read her tender apology over something so inconsequential as a missing assignment, but I was terrified when I read the last line: She said she was so upset she wanted to hurt herself.
At that time, we knew nothing of ADHD, a diagnosis she later received, nor of anxiety and depression, especially in children. We often think of childhood as simple and carefree — certainly children shouldn’t have to deal with issues we view as exclusively adult. But it’s naive and dangerous for us to believe childhood is safe from such insidious and far reaching mental health issues. Childhood depression is real and dangerous. As parents, teachers, coaches, and loved ones of children we need to be aware, know what to look for, and know how to get help for children who are battling these disorders.
In our ADHD house, pretty much everyone struggles with anxiety and depression, often oscillating between the two. It’s not just a matter of recognizing the symptoms and getting treatment, it’s daily observation to make sure current needs are being recognized and met. But depression and other disorders can look different in children. Here are some of the things we watch for in our house:
Excessive Tearfulness, Irritability, Anger
We saw this recently in one of our children. This increase in crying at even little matters and falling apart often was a sign that it was time to address the issue with our family psychiatrist. Others in our household express that increase in moodiness as anger or irritability. Extreme behaviors show the child is no longer able to manage the overwhelming emotion they’re feeling and need help. Whether they are turning that inward at themselves or outward onto others, whether it’s loud in explosive behavior or soft in quiet tears, we need to pay attention to and address the signs, however subtle they may be.
Aches and Pains
For many in our household this comes in the form of headaches and stomachaches for which there are no physical explanations. This can also be a sign that depression medication and coping strategies aren’t working as well as they need to be. We saw this last year with one of our daughters when trips to the school nurse hit an all-time high. As we addressed the depression head on, those headaches and stomachaches went away.
Withdrawal From Family, Friends, and Favorite Activities
This can be tricky to identify because children and teens may cling to some friends while shutting themselves off from others, but we have learned to be aware of general disengagement. We ask ourselves: Are they spending a lot of time alone or engaged in activities that separate them from family and friends? Are they “tired” a lot? Do they want to just lie down for a bit or be by themselves? Subtle differences can make the difference in catching a problem.
A child struggling with depression may also lose interest or withdraw from activities that they usually love. When one of our daughters was having a particularly bad bout with depression she stopped doing all the things that we knew were key parts of her. She stopped drawing, writing, singing throughout the house at the top of her lungs 24/7, and, as much as it seems like a little thing, stopped wearing makeup and paying close attention to her clothes.
Mentions of Guilt, Shame, Regret, Sorrow, and Worthlessness
This is a constant battle, and one that we’ve found ties directly to ADHD. The shame and embarrassment a child with ADHD feels over mistakes and missteps often far exceeds the actual gravity of the incident. Emotions felt so deeply that it would make a seven year old want to physically punish herself over a forgotten assignment is not normal. It’s a pattern of thinking that’s affected by the way the brain is wired and operating chemically that needs to be addressed and can be helped.
I am one of those parents who lives with the fear that my children will lose sight of how precious and loved they are because their minds play vicious and awful tricks on them through the dark side of anxiety and depression. I am one of those parents who has fought side by side with my children as they face down the inner voices that could destroy them. My best hope for them is to be watchful as we teach them to be more aware of their moods and minds.