To say a child is a small skin bag full of emotions is an understatement. It seems like their over-the-top emotional reactions can be triggered in an instant and without warning. Whether it's a toddler throwing a tantrum, or a pre-teen on the hormonal rollercoaster that is puberty, it can be difficult to tell if your child's emotions are typical for their developmental stage, or a sign of something more serious. In fact, there are moments when you should pay attention to your kid's sadness, because if it's ignored entirely that seemingly innocuous sadness could progress into something more.
My two kids seem to be on the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. My 5-year-old son tends to be more reserved, sans the occasional spontaneous tantrum, while my 10-year-old daughter wears her feelings very clearly on her metaphorical sleeve. The emotional distance my son keeps is much more my style, which explains why it's sometimes harder to deal with, or relate to, my daughter. And while I'm not knocking the way she manages her emotions, especially since she's on the cusp of puberty, I must admit that I don't always know when her sadness is an indication of something more.
Having a history of depression myself, you'd think it'd be easy for me to spot the signs and symptoms. On the contrary. At times, I'm so clouded by my own perception of sadness, it's hard to differentiate the severity of sadness in others without asking them directly. Sometimes I can be overly sensitive to my daughter's tears when all she needs is to vent, and other times I might assume she's just throwing a fit after not getting her way and, as a result, appear cold.
So with that in mind, and because it doesn't hurt to remain vigilant when it comes to your child's emotional and mental health, here are some times you should definitely pay attention to your kid's sadness:
When The Sadness Persists
Everyone gets down sometimes, but it's important to note how long your child seems so sad. According to WebMD a symptom of childhood depression is "continuous feelings of sadness and hopelessness."
My daughter usually bounces right back after a few tears, but every once in a while she remains sad for a number of days. When that happens, I pull her aside to see if there's a deeper reason why she is sad. I'd rather be too proactive then get involved too late.
When Your Child Feels Hopeless
Because of my own predisposed idea of depression, if my daughter uses any vocabulary of despair and hopelessness, I jump right in. "The primary symptoms of depression revolve around sadness, a feeling of hopelessness, and mood changes," according to WebMD, so just like adults a child who is experiencing depression will appear hopeless.
Kids don't always know how to manage their feelings and some small things can feel monumental. Address all of it and remind them there's always hope. Always.
When They Isolate Themselves
Persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness often leads to isolation. According to WebMD, "social withdrawal" and "reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests" are both signs of childhood depression. If your child spends more time alone in their room, than usual, or doesn't seem interested in hobbies they used to love, it's time to consider a more serious underlying issue.
When They're Angry & Irritable
Kids are going to get irritated. Kids are going to act out. Kids are going to get angry, especially if they don't get their way. But if your child's irritability and/or anger increases, and at a time when they're sad and isolating themselves, it might be time to consider taking your child to see a health care professional.
According to WebMD, "Early medical studies focused on 'masked' depression, where a child's depressed mood was evidenced by acting out or angry behavior." Irritability, anger, and outbursts, when coupled with extreme sadness, could be sign of something more.
When They Suffer From Physical Ailments That Don't Improve With Treatment
Rachelle Theise, Psy.D., a clinical assistant professor and child psychologist at The NYU Child Study Center, tells Parents, "Parents should also be concerned if symptoms last for more than two weeks and persist in various settings." One of those symptoms includes "frequent complaints of physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches." If your child is sad and complaining of physical ailments that don't improve with treatment, it's probably time to consult a professional.
When Their Eating Habits Change
When There Are Signs Of Self Harm
Obviously any kind of self-harm is a red flag to seek immediate, professional treatment. As a child, I engaged in self-harm as a means to shut off my emotions. I've noticed my daughter sometimes exhibits the same habit (but in a different way). While I don't want to alarm her, I do keep a close watch, hoping those times were rare and a result of her trying to manage complicated feelings.
If self-harm is something you suspect, your child may benefit from speaking with an adult that isn't you (like a therapist). There's no shame and, if anything, it shows your child that you're listening.
When They Can't Concentrate Or Have Low Energy
Jephtha Tausig-Edwards, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City, tells Parents, "It is important to realize that depression usually results from a combination of factors, so looking for a 'smoking gun' or assigning blame is not helpful and can be counterproductive in the treatment process." Keep that in mind if you notice that your child is having trouble concentrating and/or has low energy. Can kids be easily distracted? Of course. Can they get tired? Obviously. But if these symptoms are coupled with a few of the aforementioned symptoms above, your child's sadness could be a sign of something more severe.
Kids are going to feel sad. It's part of life. I still get sad and sometimes it has nothing to do with my depression. The key is knowing when to intervene.
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