Childhood Depression

Although we do not often think that children could have depression, we are finding it becoming more prevalent. Children as young as 7 and 8 are committing suicide while we are standing on the side asking ourselves how could we have missed the tell tale signs…

Children do not necessarily present with the signs of depression that we notice in adults. The following can be possible signs that your child is depressed:

  • Crying, sadness, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Feelings of being discouraged or worthless
  • Loss of interest in the activities she enjoyed previously
  • Constant tiredness, low energy levels and boredom
  • Temper tantrums, irritability and being easily annoyed
  • Feelings of rejection
  • Drop in achievement levels at school
  • Constant fidgeting or feeling restless
  • Emotional outbursts, shouting or complaining
  • Inability to communicate
  • Physical complaints without a sound medical reason behind it. Children often complain of headache, stomachache or pain in their limbs.
  • Parents might notice an increase or decrease in their child’s appetite
  • Children who are depressed might show changes in their sleeping pattern – either sleeping more or struggling to sleep.
  • Problems with concentration.

We have to realize that depression is different from just having the “blues ”. Depression lasts longer and is more intense, leaving a child immobilized and broken down with no self-esteem. It affects interpersonal relationships and school performance. A child that once was popular may become withdrawn, lonely and an academic under-achiever.

What causes a child to become depressed?

There are different things that can contribute to depression. We distinguish between underlying factors that predispose a child to having depression and events that can trigger a depressive episode.

Some children are genetically predisposed to becoming depressed. Often there is a family history of depression. Developmental events can also play a role – for instance severe separation anxiety can predispose a child to depression. Physiological stressors for instance an illness or handicap and psychological stressors like grieving or an adult with depression in the house can contribute to depression.

The type of events that can trigger depression is prolonged separation from parents, divorce, death of a person or pet, moving or academic and sport failure can trigger a depressive episode. Failure to live up to perceived expectations play a more important role than parents often realize. Any kind of abuse, whether physical, emotional or verbal can lead to severe depression, breaking the child down up to the point where they feel like an empty shell.

What to do if you suspect your child is depressed:

  • Get professional medical and mental health advice as soon as possible.
  • In older children, make sure there are no concurrent alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Check that any medication your child is taking does not have depression or any symptoms of depression as side-effects.
  • Know that normal grieving and reactions to stressful life events should have a short life span and pass over time. Depression tends to be more permeating and longer lasting.
  • Make sure that your child’s diet is healthy and complete.
  • Monitor your child’s sleeping pattern.
  • Stay involved in your child’s life. Try to prevent your child from isolating herself and cutting her off from peer interaction.
  • It is important that your child gets regular exercise and stays active.
  • Spend time with her and give her the opportunity to communicate to you in a safe environment.
  • Try to schedule pleasurable activities on a one-to-one basis, but also as a family.

Children with depression often end up being adults with depression. Stop the cycle as soon as possible. Psychotherapy at a young age can prevent medication use at a later stage. Children do very well in play therapy and family therapy. Family therapy helps to recognize roles in the family and enable children to voice their problems and concerns appropriately.