Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression don’t only affect adults. Learn the warning signs and how to get treatment if your child struggles with one of these disorders.
Facts & figures
Twelve-year-old Sarah (not her real name) began getting unexplained stomachaches and headaches. She asked her parents to let her stay home from school on those days. While home, she watched TV, worked diligently on her iPad to complete the work she missed and seemed fine until bedtime, when she’d complain of illness again and her parents would hear her tossing and turning during the night.
Like many kids, Sarah’s ailments stemmed from anxiety. “Over the years, I’ve seen anxiety increasing,” says Larry Osborne, sixth-grade guidance counselor at Voorhees Middle School in Voorhees, NJ. “The world that we live in is very different. The kids have the world at their fingertips with smartphones and iPads, but their readiness is not quite there yet.”
From birth to adolescence, about 20 percent of children will face depression, adds Jason Lewis, PhD and clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
While it may seem that more kids today are depressed than ever before, that’s not necessarily the case. “We have a better understanding of pediatric depression, so we are able to catch the kids who, in the past, we weren’t catching,” says Lewis. Even preschoolers can be depressed, but now they can be helped at a much younger age.
Combine peer pressure, academic stress and bullying, much of it being played out on social media, and an anxiety problem can occur, “Especially when social media is not being monitored by the parents or guardians in their lives,” says Osborne.
“There’s a strong genetic component to depression,” adds Lewis. “So kids who have a family history of depression are at a greater risk. There is also a brain chemistry piece, though we don’t know the exact biological cause.”
“Kids are good at hiding anxiety,” cautions Osborne. Watch for these signs that could indicate anxiety, depression or both:
- Interrupted sleep or sleeping too much
- Unexplained physical ailments like stomach and headaches
- Resistance to going to school or social events
- Anxious thoughts and behaviors
- Sad or irritable moods for much of
- the day for many days a week
- Withdrawing from people and
- things they ordinarily enjoy
- Sharp decline in grades
See page 2 for treatment options for anxiety and depression, and how to identify a suicide risk.
If a child has someone who can listen and offer suggestions to self-regulate her anxiety, that solution may be enough. Acknowledge her feelings as the first step, says Osborne. “Then we develop a utility belt that consists of various tools to keep the anxiety in check,” he explains, which might include listening to music, painting or reading to relax.
Because those activities often can’t be done in a public setting, suggest your child take a short walk or get a drink of water when he needs a small break from a stressful situation.
Seek insight from a professional to determine the severity of the problem. For mild or moderate anxiety or depression, treatments include supportive, cognitive behavioral or interpersonal therapies. Therapists also teach kids self-help skills to better manage their emotional state. For severe depression, many profession- als prescribe medication.
The stresses of school and home life can lead some children to experience anxiety or depression, which can cause troubling behaviors. Parents who know the signs and how to access available resources can help their children manage these disorders.
Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.