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Preteens and Depression
Depression is not often associated with preteens kids in upper elementary and early junior high grades, but it's becoming more common. Many medical experts and teachers believe that the source of preteen depression is most often undue pressure to excel in school, sports and social circles.
"Boys are made to think they have to have a pretty babe, a big car, all this external stuff. Girls feel they have to live up to this impossible physical ideal, so immediately there's a sense of failure. It used to be 14- and 15-year-olds who were reacting to these messages. Now it's filtering down to the younger kids." Carmen Dean Fifth-grade teacher.1
Occasional or situational mood swings are normal in a preteen, whose body is changing and hormones are shifting into overdrive. A child who forgets his homework, doesn't get the part she wanted in the play, or is told that he can't sleep over at his friend's house is likely to sulk for a little while. But after an hour or two, his mood will generally improve. It's only when the sullen moods are frequent, triggered by "the little things" and last unusually long that a parent should be concerned.
Some common emotional characteristics of a depressed preteen include: extreme mood swings, feeling helpless or hopeless, sulking or withdrawal, anxiety, feeling isolated or lonely, despondency, nervousness, feeling out-of-control, or feeling an overwhelming sense of loss.
Common behavioral characteristics include: lack of energy, impulsiveness, aggressiveness, inability to concentrate or lack of interest, recklessness, extreme changes in appetite, weight, academic or work performance.
In addition, a child who is clinically depressed will often say things like "Nobody would miss me," "I just want to sleep," "I don't care anymore," or may threaten outright to commit suicide. If this type of threat is made, parents need to take it seriously. Some will be tempted to dismiss the threat of suicide as a vie for attention or a bout of melodrama, but it's impossible to know for sure. For the safety of the child, at the first threat of suicide, the child and parents should speak with a mental health professional.
Parents are sometimes reluctant to consider that their preteen may be suffering from depression because they don't want their child having to take medication. But the pharmacy doesn't have to be the first and/or only stop for a preteen struggling with depression.
Often, depressed feelings or thoughts are only expressed in one area of a preteen's life academics for example. For any person, preteen or otherwise, to be diagnosed as clinically depressed, there have to be common issues in four major areas of life; academic, social, family, and internal (self-talk). For this reason, parents are encouraged to have their preteen assessed by a psychologist or psychiatrist who can make an accurate diagnosis and help the family develop an appropriate treatment plan. If a preteen is struggling in a particular area but is not clinically depressed, a mental health professional will be able to help the child develop proper coping mechanisms.
The good news about depression in preteens is that in about 90% of cases, the depression is gone within a year.2 Parents need to be aware, however, that recurring depression is also common. If a child's first bout of depression occurs before he is 14-years-old, recurrence is very likely. In fact, there's a one-in-three chance that depression will reappear within a year of recovery. About 75% of preteens will experience recurring depression within four years of recovery. Situations that cause extreme stress and/or emotion, such as divorce, moving, or a death in the family, increase the likelihood of recurring depression.
If you suspect that your preteen child may have depression try to talk to him. Give him a chance to express his emotions. Avoid asking him why he feels the way he does, as he probably won't know how to answer. Ask him open-ended questions about things that make him both happy and sad, and give him time to think and respond. Share some of your own feelings, as a way of letting your preteen know that it's ok to express sad or depressed feelings.
If you feel that your child needs to see a mental health professional, talk to him about it and help assuage any fear or anxiety he may feel. Help him understand that getting help is good. Let him know what the doctor's visit will be like and reassure him that you'll be right there with him. Make sure he knows that you love him and that there's nothing wrong with him. Often, children will feel guilty or ashamed, or feel like they're "broken", because of their depression. Reassure your child that you love him and that there's no reason for him to feel embarrassed or ashamed. The less guilty or embarrassed he feels, the more likely he'll cooperate and get the help he needs.
1 Source: http://www.healthyplace.com/communities/depression/related/school_5.asp
2 Source: http://www.healthyplace.com/communities/depression/children_6.asp