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Is Your Child Anxious or Depressed? Watch for These Signs

There is no magical age when we become susceptible to depression or anxiety. These disorders can show up at any point in life, affecting our decision making, ability to cope with stress and interaction with others. 

But with children and adolescents, our challenge is figuring out whether mood swings or other symptoms can be blamed on typical “growing pains” or a more serious issue. Fortunately, mental health screening for young people has come a long way in recent years. And recognizing  warning signs can be key to getting help for your child if they need it. 

Common Mental Health Issues for Children and Adolescents 

More than 4 million children between the ages of 3 and 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety, and nearly 2 million have been diagnosed with depression. These numbers have been on the rise in recent years, driven both by new screening techniques and a societal shift in how we view mental health. 

Children are encouraged to be more expressive with their feelings and parents are urged to be more conscientious in how they connect with their children, creating a safe space for better communication. 

Warning Signs and Red Flags 

Parents, caregivers and teachers play a vital role in a child’s mental health. It’s normal for children to experience sadness and fear, but it’s important to watch for significant behavioral changes that could signal a larger issue. 

Extreme feelings of sadness, irritability or worry may be an indicator of depression or anxiety. Other warning signs include: 


  • Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or irritability

  • Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed

  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns

  • Loss of energy or motivation

  • Difficulty focusing

  • Exhibiting potentially harmful behavior such as self-injury

  • Giving away of belongings or ending friendships

  • Increased substance abuse 


  • Worries that interfere with everyday activities or school

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches or stomach aches

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Drop in academic performance

  • Withdrawal from activity

  • Discomfort in social situations 

How to Talk to Your Kids About Feelings

The ideal approach for talking with your child can vary, based on their age. 

  • Ages 6 to 10: Young children tend to be less guarded and more apt to engage. At this stage, play is an excellent way to help your child express and explain their feelings. 

  • Ages 10 to 13: Adolescents are often trying to build autonomy and are more likely to lie or avoid talking about their feelings. Take a more sensitive approach and consider sharing a bit about your own experiences to balance the dialogue and let your child know they are not alone in their feelings. Or try engaging your child in a consistent family activity of their choosing. 

  • Teenagers: It’s important for teens to not feel interrogated. Instead of asking questions, consider making observational statements like “you seem sad” or “help me understand what’s going on.” Teens often fear disappointing their parents and may feel more at ease opening up to a stranger. In those cases, consider encouraging an extra-curricular activity where a coach or manager can also serve as a mentor. 

Treating Kids’ Mental Health Is Different Than Treating Adults

If you suspect your child is anxious or depressed and are concerned about their safety and well-being, the next step is to consult your pediatrician. An initial screening can determine whether a specialist would be beneficial. 

Once a pediatric psychiatrist is involved, they will conduct a formal screening. The first session is often dedicated to diagnosis, conducting one-on-one interviews where both the child and caregiver can speak freely and developing a treatment plan. 

Parents, schools and the community play an important supportive role in managing mental health, which often is affected by environmental factors. Medication is considered a last resort. A medical professional can examine potential changes in the household environment, offering parents techniques and strategies for managing anxiety and depression at home. This could include tools such as behavioral intervention, therapy, coaching, peer support and school modifications. Only after these non-pharmaceutical routes have failed will your doctor suggest medication. 

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