Jeff is the star player on his high school baseball team. He feels that he must win at any cost and believes that this is what his coach and his parents expect of him. Jeff is fifteen years old and he smokes marijuana.
Julie worries that something bad is going to happen to her mother, especially when she is at school and away from home. Julie suffers from stomach-aches and headaches. She is also concerned that “bad things” are going to happen to other family members and friends. Julie is eight years old and has trouble sleeping at night. She says she can’t stop worrying and feels anxious most of the time.
Lynn is an excellent student, but her grades are beginning to suffer. Her mother is a musician, and plays in a symphony orchestra. Her father is a college professor. Lynn’s parents are divorced, but she spends a great deal of time with her parents, living a week at a time in each parent’s home. Lynn is a junior in high school. She is 17 years old and suffers from panic attacks. Sometimes, the attacks are so severe that Lynn is forced to leave school and is unable to complete her school day.
Although changed to protect identities, these scenarios reflect the young patients I have seen in my counseling practice over the years. Their anxiety and depression have been severe enough to cause worry for their parents. Fortunately, these parents sought professional help for their children. Unfortunately, other parents don’t do this and think their child is a problem child or will “get over” the stage their child is “going through.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that “mental health problems affect one in every five young people at any given time.” Serious emotional disturbances which seriously disrupt a child’s daily life activities (at school, home and in community situations) affect one in ten children.* Children experiencing severe anxiety and depression may engage in self-mutilation, may use drugs as a way to cope with hurt feelings, or have suicidal thoughts. Unfortunately, some children do commit suicide, believing this is the only way to stop feeling unworthy, hopeless and helpless.
There are many reasons for why children experience anxiety or depression. It could be an emotional reaction to stressors at home or in school. If a child is confronted by a bully, he/she may not know what to do or with whom to speak. Some children have too much “on their plate,” and become overwhelmed with school work, extracurricular activities, plus an after-school job or other responsibilities. They may also lack the ability to manage their time appropriately. Sometimes parents put unreasonable demands on their children, expecting them to follow in their own footsteps with sports, music, or other endeavors. Some parents may demand their children take honors courses, pushing them with unreasonable expectations. While we don’t want our children to underachieve when we know they are capable, if the child seems to be emotionally, physically and socially impaired, parents should be able to work out a compromise and help their children alleviate some of the stress/stressors.
Other reasons for children to experience anxiety or depression include their reactions to family crisis: death, serious illness or injury to a loved one, or parents going through a divorce. Children can also react to and act out from witnessing domestic violence or from suffering abuse. There can also be a history of family depression and/or an underlying biological reason for depression.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that parents can look for the following symptoms if they suspect their child is suffering from anxiety:
- many worries about things before they happen
- constant worries or concerns about family, school, friends, or activities
- repetitive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) or actions (compulsions)
- fears of embarrassment or making mistakes
- low self esteem and lack of self-confidence **
The following are warning signs and symptoms that parents can look for in children and adolescents suffering from depression. If a child is showing anxiety over test-taking or an upcoming event such as a dance recital, it is possible that communication with the child can alleviate fears and concerns. On-going symptoms that cannot be alleviated through parent-child communication may require professional help from a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist.
Signs of on-going depression in children:
• difficulty sleeping and nightmares
• upset stomachs and headaches
• lethargic behavior
• sadness and expressions of unhappiness
• withdrawal from others, avoidant behavior
• bored with school, poor grades, disliking teachers and other students
• low tolerance for frustration, angry outbursts
• unexplained weight gain or weight loss
• poor self-esteem
Signs of depression in adolescents:
• use of drugs
• self-mutilation such as cutting or burning
• aggressive behavior toward others
• withdrawal and avoidance
• irritable, anxious, overly sensitive
• good grades that slip into poor performance/grades in school
• skipping school
• weight loss or weight gain
• aggressive and defiant behavior
• low self-esteem
It doesn’t take much for a parent to notice that their child or children are having difficulty. As parents we need to be tuned into how our children feel emotionally and physically. This requires a little more communication than asking the question, “how was your day at school?” When parents communicate well with their children, they will easily realize that something is wrong. There are times, however, when children “protect” their parents and don’t say anything about a difficult situation. However, a parent can tell from their child’s behavior that something is wrong. If talking with your child does not alleviate symptoms, it may be time to seek professional help.