How to spot the signs of anxiety and depression in children
With over half of mental health problems in adult life starting by the age of 14, it is important for us to be aware of the signs in children and young people so we can help them.
Depression and anxiety are among the most common types of mental illness, so let’s break down both of these terms. What do they actually mean – and when do they become a cause for concern?
What are anxiety and depression?
The word anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry or unease.
Normal life events or milestones such as starting school, moving house or school exams can bring about feelings of anxiety.
These types of events may cause children to feel anxious, as when they become used to a routine, a sudden change can be difficult to come to terms with.
Teenagers are also more likely to suffer from social anxiety, which stems from the fear of being negatively judged by their peers.
Depression is a long-lasting mood disorder that causes you to feel down and often develops alongside anxiety.
Triggers for depression may include family difficulties, bullying, body image, social media and exam stress. Abuse or a family history of depression can also be a contributor. Often the trigger of either is a mixture of things rather than one difficult event.
Of course, not all feelings of anxiousness or sadness are to be worried about. And a lot of these worries are a perfectly normal part of growing up. However, anxiety and depression become a problem when it starts to get in the way of your child’s day to day life.
Signs to look out for
According to the NHS, some of the signs of anxiety to be aware of are:
- Becoming irritable, tearful or clingy
- Difficulty sleeping or eating
- Wetting the bed
- Bad dreams
- Lacking the confidence to try new things or simple, everyday challenges
- Difficulty concentrating
- Negative thoughts
- Angry outbursts
- Avoiding everyday activities, such as seeing friends, going out in public or attending school
Young Minds is the UK’s leading charity championing the well-being and mental health of young people; their website is packed with information. They have outlined the following signs of depression to look out for:
- Not wanting to do things that they previously enjoyed
- Sleeping more or less than normal
- Eating more or less than normal
- Feeling irritable, upset, miserable or lonely
- Being self-critical
- Feeling hopeless
- Maybe wanting to self-harm
- Feeling tired and not having any energy
How can you help?
As caregivers, we can feel a massive responsibility to identify any problems our children have, which can lead to feelings of guilt if we feel we are missing things that are going on.
What can be helpful is:
- To know what signs to look out for that might be an indication of something wrong and…
- Making sure we have open communication that helps our children and young people to feel safe and trusting enough to share any issues they may be having.
The good news is that we are seeing more and more school-based programmes to help children manage stress, anxiety and depression. Schools that have started including mental health services into their day to day running are already seeing positive results, and school-based yoga has also been shown to improve students’ emotional wellbeing.
Find out if your school has any of these programmes running already – and if not, try suggesting it to your child’s teacher.
There are also some activities you can do at home to help your child learn to manage and talk about their emotions:
- Create a worry box – Provide a daily slot of time when your child can release their worries in writing, post them in the box and say ‘goodbye’ to them for the day. Sorting through the box together at the end of the week provides an ideal opportunity to discuss and come up with solutions where necessary.
- Make an emergency checklist – Renee Jain, creator of an anxiety relief programme for children, recommends that children make an emergency checklist with a step-by-step method to help them calm down. For example, pausing and breathing, evaluating the situation, and so on.
- Put together a mental health first aid kit – In a box, put some objects that can help your child calm down. This could be a book to write their thoughts in or draw, or sensory/fidget toys,
- Be a calm and open role model – Children look to their parents as their most valuable role models. Watching you address difficult situations teaches them about how to manage similar scenarios without being afraid.
While everyone can feel down or anxious at times, when it lingers for a long time and starts to interfere with daily life, it is time to seek help. Looking out for warning signs and establishing a culture of talk with your child are positive steps in identifying and tackling mental health problems.
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, speak to your GP or visit YoungMinds for more advice and a parents helpline for confidential, expert support.