Depression and anxiety: Even kids get the blues

October 26th, 2018

It’s not uncommon to hear about teen-age depression and anxiety today. But it doesn’t affect just teens. Some studies show that as many as 2 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.

Young female climber hand gripping hold on rock climbing wall
Even kids get the blues. Dr. Ian Tullberg explains what to look for in children who may have depression or anxiety.

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 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 say, ‘You don’t need to worry about that. I’m the parent, so I’ll worry about it.’ But that doesn’t help. There are still anxious. Why?”

Dr. Tullberg said that 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,” he said. “These things can affect us in such a physical way – headaches and stomach pains, for example.”

A photo of Dr. Ian tullberg
Dr. Ian Tullberg

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,” he said, “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 is a sign. Difficulty sleeping or concentrating. If their grades suffer, especially if it’s sudden, that could indicate a problem. If they’re getting into trouble at school or refusing to go to school, there’s usually a reason.  Changes in eating habits – too much or too little – are a sign. Being angry, being mad all the time. Or big mood swings. Feelings of worthlessness, frequent sadness or crying. Withdrawing from friends or activities.”

Some children also experience a compete loss of energy, low self-esteem, or even talk about suicide or hurting others, he added. “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.”

Dr. Tullberg sees it first-hand, with children ages 9 and 11, and refuses to let them be on Facebook or other social media until they are older – maybe 18.

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.”

But if your conversations aren’t productive, or they don’t want to talk to you about it, “find someone else to talk to – their pediatrician, maybe. Then they know it will be confidential,” he suggested.

But don’t ignore it, he warned.

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

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs who writes articles for UCHealth.