Is it just exam time stress, or is your child depressed?

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With exams just around the corner, the pressure is on. Many children experience some level of stress, but in some cases it can also lead to depression. Depression in children is not uncommon. Make sure you watch out for the warning signs.

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If your child displays extreme reactions to even simple queries such as: how was your exam? you need to be concerned.

Cheryl is a mother of an 11 year old boy who will be sitting for his school exams soon. She called me a few days ago, expressing concern about her boy. “Look, I know all children will be stressed during exam period, but how stressed should my boy be before it becomes bad?”

“What do you mean by bad?” I asked.  Cheryl explained, “I’m quite worried. He’s not talking much these few days and when he does, he tells me he’s very stressed. I’m really worried that he might be depressed. Do you think so? What should I do?”

Well, Cheryl is right about one thing. Many children will feel varying degrees of stress during any examination or assessment period. But at what point should we as parents be more concerned? And what can we do to help our children?

Contrary to what many people believe, depression in children does exist. The behavioural signs of this form of depression can be quite different from adult depression. Here are some signs that you should look out for:

Mood and behaviour changes

Not unsurprisingly, being in a depressed mood is the most commonly reported symptom by anyone who is depressed. For children, they might report it differently and might use colloquial language describe their mood (e.g. feeling very ‘emo’, feeling ‘blue’, etc.).

You can also expect sudden behavioural changes. A usually boisterous child could become quiet and reserved for example.

In short, any sudden change in your child’s mood from what is usually expected, at a sustained period of time, should be of concern.

Increased irritability

The cautionary note to parents is that children tend to mask or hide their depressed mood and instead express it through irritability. This means that a depressed child might react more strongly to negative comments or to a mild disagreement. He might explode in anger, even to a simple question like, “Have you studied?” as compared to the more usual annoyed state.

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One of the signs to watch out for is when you child loses interest in things he used to take pleasure in.

Loss of pleasure in doing things they love

Let’s say your child’s favourite activity is computer gaming. It is also an activity he engages in when stressed. What do you think if one day your child suddenly stops playing or loses interest in it? Worse, what if he’d rather stay alone in the bedroom not studying and refuse to play games even though you invite him to? This is a worrying sign.

Expression of self-blame and hopelessness

“It’s my fault”, “I’m lousy”, “I’m a failure”. Self-blame may be observed when a child makes mistakes in assessments or disappoints the parent.  More worrying is the child who expresses hopelessness. A child might see his future as hopeless because he did not score the expected grade or he has difficulties revising.

Alarm bells should be triggered if these expressions are continually observed even after the exam and when the child generalises to other areas of his life, e.g. “Everyone is upset because of me”, “I’m not good even at gaming”.

Change in eating and sleeping patterns

Depression can affect one’s physiology so your child’s eating habits and sleeping patterns might change drastically. Unless there is extreme weight loss or gain, parents also need to pay attention to more significantly disturbed sleep patterns. The child may appear more sluggish than usual and could be misinterpreted as being lazy.

Parents might think their child to be sick however a visit to the doctors will find nothing wrong physically with him.

To find out how you can help your child through this, head on to the next page.

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Listening to your child without judgement, can go a long way.

If your child is displaying any or all of the signs mentioned on the previous page, then he probably has depression. This is when your child needs you the most. Here is how you can help:

Talk and Listen without judgment

Do set aside time to have a talk with your child about how they are feeling and especially what they are thinking. Listen carefully to what your child has to share and try to ask what is making them feel depressed and stressed. Do not make quick judgments like “Don’t think silly things like this” as that would stop your child from sharing.

Help if you can

If your child does share thoughts of hopelessness and self-blame, do express your concern and support. Do help to debunk mistruths your child might have of himself. For example if your child says that he or she is a failure, then you need to show to him or her that he is not one.

Talk to teachers and friends

Do try and speak with teachers and friends of your child. They can be good sources of information that you may not have access to. They may also be able to provide perspectives from another angle which could help you make better decisions.

Self-care

If you become stressed and feel depressed because of what is happening to your child, you may not be able to give the support needed. You should also talk to others and not keep things to yourself. Stressed parents can in turn stress the child and this could increase his feelings of guilt.

The above stated signs are just a few things to take note of. If you are in doubt and have serious concerns, do not hesitate to bring your child to see psychiatrist or clinical psychologist for a thorough assessment.

This article is contributed by Donus Loh, Principal Psychologist of W3ave Pte Ltd.

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