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How to Handle Your Kid's Depression or Anxiety

We've all received that phone call, email or text from our young adult child who's lamenting some crisis or another. Often our response is, “This too shall pass.” But what happens when one bad day slips into another and another?


Americans are reporting more symptoms of depression, such as trouble sleeping and concentrating, than people typically did in the 1980s, according to a new study.

The results were especially striking among young people. Compared to three decades ago, college students are 50 percent more likely to say they feel overwhelmed, and teens are 74 percent more likely to have trouble sleeping.

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So when should we get concerned and suggest help for our adult children? We chatted last week with Paola Pedrelli, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, who counsels troubled young adults.

While she concurs that more young people are suffering, she notes that it’s often unclear whether the underlying cause is depression or anxiety, which have similar symptoms.

“Anxiety is really about being afraid of the future: Am I going to fail an exam? Am I going to get in a car accident? Depression is more about self-esteem: I am worthless; I’ve made mistakes in my life,” she points out. “Both cause trouble sleeping, but people with anxiety don’t sleep because they are thinking all the time about the future. Those who are depressed are thinking how horrible they are.”

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Working with college students, Pedrelli has seen an increase in anxiety disorders related to the skyrocketing costs and worries about paying off student loans and getting a good job. “Many students feel guilty about not performing well and worrying about what college is costing them and their parents,” she says.

If a child is struggling, parents need to look for red flags, including skipping class, slipping grades, withdrawing socially, sleeping all the time and not exercising.

The first step, Pedrelli says, is an open and honest conversation. Express concern and give a few weeks to get back on track. If nothing changes, “then you need to be more aggressive and suggest a therapist.” It's most important for a parent to keep talking and listening.

Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.

Photo: melnichuk_ira/iStock

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