Any parent will confirm that kids experience a variety of moods every day. Much like adults, changes in their mood and behavior are often dependent on a variety of factors; sleep, hunger, surroundings, stress—this list goes on and on. In these unprecedented times, how can you tell if your child or teenager is genuinely depressed just moody?
According to the American Psychiatry Association, “Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.” Many children have experienced a variety of emotions since the onset of the pandemic, which can be a very normal and healthy response. However, if you fear that your child may be experiencing more than what would be considered normal mood swings, Dr. Bethany Cook, PsyD, MT-BC tells Parentology that parents should develop a baseline.
“Think back to pre-pandemic time and think about their child’s emotional function,” she says. “There’s what I call a green zone where they are fairly happy, they might get upset sometimes or they’re happy but not super elated. They can swing out of it to be super happy or swing out of it to be sad or depressed.”
Teenager Depressed or Just COVID Moody?
The short answer is that it doesn’t really matter. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years have diagnosed with depression. While that percentage may seem small, it equates to about 2 million kids.
For many young people, the pandemic may have incited a decline in their emotional state. However, at this point, Dr. Cook cautions if they are experiencing depression, you should not expect it to just go away once life becomes more normalized.
“Now we have been in this pandemic long enough that how your child is coping with it, I believe, should be more settled in the sense that when you think about your child now, are they swinging a lot more outside of that “norm” that they did prior to COVID.”
Dr. Cook encourages parents to think about that “green zone.” She explains, “It’s not only how far they’re swinging outside of the norm, it is the intensity and the duration.”
Generally, if your child seems to be in an unusually sad or depressed mood for two weeks you should contact your pediatrician. Dr. Cook warns not to get caught up on numbers but instead look at their overall mental state. If a child has had only 3 “good” days in the course of a three-week period, the need for help is most likely still there.
How to Positively Impact a Child’s Mental Health?
No parent can prevent their child’s depression but there are some things every parent can do to help improve their kids’ overall mental health. For younger children, their awareness of what’s going on in the world right now comes from their parents. “The energy in the house, how are mom and dad functioning and coping” can impact them.
Cook also encourages really listening to your kids, even if you feel they may be overly dramatic. You should never ignore anything that could be a cry for help. Make time to sit with your children for fifteen minutes with no phones or devices to talk with them. Some of her other suggestions include:
- Show your vulnerability around your child. Let them see you struggle, that lets them know you’re human. It’s a fine line. You don’t want your children to think that you’re unstable when you share your vulnerability, so do it at a time when you’re able to be emotionally objective.
- Create a loving and stress-free environment at home. Try to take stressful phone calls or conversations outside or in a private area if at all possible.
- Be consistent with your schedule and boundaries. Kids need rules to feel safe. Feeling safe helps protect kids against mental distress.
- Talk about depression openly, especially if it runs in your family.
- Model positive thinking for your children.
- Schedule regular times for relaxation. Utilize quiet time, reading, calm music for the entire family.
- Make time for a weekly check-in for each child. Allow your child to determine the topic and allow them to immerse yourself in their world.
- Exercise. Go on a family walk, have a dance party, find an online exercise program geared toward your child’s age.
According to Cook, the most powerful tool involves just a few words. “The best preventative for mental health issues is that they feel loved and they feel connected and they need to hear it. Tell your kids you love them.”