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Moody vs. Depressed: How to Tell the Difference

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We love our children but, as every parent has experienced, they can be sulky, temperamental and hard to reach. Adolescence can be an especially turbulent time. In these moments, the critical question for a parent is, how can I tell if my child is going through a “phase,” or if he or she is suffering from a more serious psychological disorder, such as childhood depression?

Is it moodiness, or more?

The good news is that depression, whether in a child or an adult, can be treated. Kelly Caywood, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital Colorado, says careful observation and questioning are the key ways a parent can distinguish between common teen or adolescent moodiness and depression.

“Depression in adolescents can look a lot like what’s typical for that age group — irritability, sullen behavior, social problems, isolating themselves in their rooms. It’s really about the degree and severity,” Dr. Caywood said. “If a significant change in behavior is noticed or if conditions continue for two weeks or longer, there might be cause for concern.”

What depression warning signs should I watch for?

Parents who are concerned that their child could be depressed should be aware of the following signs:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Frequent sadness or tearfulness
  • Grades dropping
  • Isolation
  • Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Sleeping too much or too little

When can kids start experiencing depression?

Though research suggests children can meet the clinical criteria for depression as early as age 3, Dr. Caywood stresses that such cases are rare. Rates of depression typically increase as children approach adolescence and the teen years.

What treatment options are available for depression?

Children’s Hospital Colorado offers numerous services for treating childhood depression, disruptive behavior and mood disorders through the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

In the Intensive Outpatient Psychiatry Program, a child and his or her parents meet with a clinical psychologist or other facilitator three times a week. Children’s Colorado also provides an Intensive Services Program for children ages 3 to 18 whose medical and psychosocial needs are not being met in a regular school setting.

What can parents do if they suspect their child has a more acute problem than grumpiness?

“Talk with your child and try to get a sense of what is going on,” Dr. Caywood said. “If in doubt, seek help from a mental health expert. Early intervention is key.”

For more information about mental health programs for children and teens, call Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Colorado at (720) 777-6200.

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