It’s not uncommon to hear about teenage depression and anxiety. But it doesn’t affect just teens. Some studies show that as many as two percent of preschool and school-age children suffer from depression.

“Unfortunately, younger children also are prone to it,” said Dr. Ian Tullberg, Medical Director of the UCHealth Urgent Care clinics in Colorado Springs. “You would not think a younger child would need to suffer from anxiety and depression, but it seems to be part of our society now,” he said.

Ian Tullberg
Dr. Ian Tullberg is medical director of the UCHealth Urgent Care clinics in Colorado Springs.

To identify depression in a child, “Look at what’s normal. For really little kids, it’s normal to be afraid of strangers. As they get older, some kids are afraid of storms or the dark. Some are afraid of monsters under the bed. Or they begin to understand about death. It’s a progressive thing, as they develop,” he said.

When It Becomes Abnormal

The problem manifests when it becomes abnormal. “Let’s talk about anxiety. Notice if they’re starting to avoid certain people, activities or things they used to like, for some unknown reason,’’ Dr. Tullberg said.

“Let’s say you’re driving them to sports practice and traffic is heavy. They start worrying about what could go wrong, that they’ll be late for practice. You tell them not to worry about that, reassure them that you are the parent, and you’ll worry about it. But that doesn’t help. They are still anxious. Why? If a child has distress that is constant and persistent, then there is a trigger and something is going on.”

Parents should watch for any big change in a child’s sleeping habits – either too much or too little or wanting to sleep with the parents all of a sudden. “If it’s a change from the normal, consider it a sign that something’s amiss,” he said.

Look for Physical Symptoms

“One thing I tell patients, even adults, is that anxiety and stress are things we don’t give enough credit to. These things can affect us in such a physical way – headaches and stomach pains, for example. If something can’t be medically explained, stress and anxiety can be the cause and it’s very real,” he added. “When I tell parents that a child’s symptoms come from stress or anxiety, a lot of them won’t believe me, but parents should not brush these things off or tell kids they should not feel that way.’’

Depression

Depression has similar symptoms, but more intense, as a general rule.

Certainly, it’s different, but there are symptoms you really want to look out for. Are you ready for this? The list is long.

  • A depressed or irritable mood
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Suffering grades at school especially if it’s sudden
  • Getting into trouble at school or refusing to go to school
  • Changes in eating habits – too much or too little
  • Being angry or mad all the time
  • Big mood swings
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Frequent sadness or crying
  • Withdrawing from friends or activities

Some children also experience a complete loss of energy, low self-esteem, or even talk about suicide or hurting others. Take it seriously. Kids can kill themselves, or seriously hurt themselves or others.

Bullying Is Often Blamed for These Issues

“Bullying is not just one of those things done in person,” Tullberg said. “The cyberbullying today is rampant. Parents have to be on top of that.”

What can be done about anxiety and depression in children?

If parents think their child is suffering from anxiety or depression, first talk to them. Don’t come to your own conclusions without doing that. Maybe there’s a specific situation causing it. If you have a good, open relationship with them, you’d be surprised how often they may tell you the truth if you just ask.

If conversations are not productive, or if the child doesn’t want to talk about it, “find someone else to talk to – their pediatrician. Then they know it will be confidential,” Dr. Tullberg suggested.
“Don’t ignore it”, he warned.

“Seek professional help with a doctor or school counselor. Just don’t let it go on too long,” he said.

About the author

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Linda DuVal
Journalist at

Linda DuVal is a veteran journalist who writes for UCHealth Today, and online medical news source at uchealth.org/today.