Many people are surprised to learn how early depression can start. Signs of depression in children can appear very early and this can lead to depression or other mental health issues later in life. Recognizing these signs and intervening early can help your child develop healthy coping skills and social skills that will help them as they enter early adulthood.
Depression in Children: Signs, Symptoms and Solutions
What is Childhood Depression?
Depression in children is characterized by feelings of sadness or irritability or a loss of interest or enjoyment in pastimes and activities. The difference between depression and normal bouts of sadness is that depression lingers, affecting the child for most of the day and most of the week for at least a two-week period.
Childhood depression is similar to depression appearing in adults, except that it appears earlier in life. Childhood depression may refer to anyone who isn’t yet an adult, including teenagers and grade school children. Experts estimate between 3 and 5% of children 13 to 18 years old will have an episode of severe depression. This does not necessarily mean they will suffer from depression later in life, but treating depression and developing healthy coping mechanisms early on will improve their quality of life overall.
What Causes Childhood Depression?
Much like depression in adults, the direct cause of childhood depression is not known. There are, however, risk factors that increase the likelihood that childhood depression will develop. These risk factors do not mean that your child will have depression, only that they may be more susceptible to it, so paying close attention behavioral changes will be especially helpful.
- Depression in one or both parents
- Family history of mental, behavioral or personality disorders
- Estranged relationships with one or both parents
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Chronic illness or disability
- Childhood trauma
Some of these risk factors, such as a family history of mental health issues, indicate a genetic link to developing childhood depression. Other risk factors, such as chronic illness or disability, can make a child feel less independent or confident, or it may create a barrier to making friends and socializing. Finally, childhood trauma and abuse affects the way children process events, emotions, and develop a self-image.
Signs of Depression in Children
Signs of depression in children appear in similar ways as depression in adults. However, since behavioral expectations are different for children than adults, some signs can go unnoticed for long periods.
For example, some children may be naturally shy and prefer time alone, so social withdrawal may not seem odd. This behavior may be a sign of depression in children when the child’s behavior notably changes. If, for example, a shy child detaches from their previously close friends and spends no time socializing, they may be depressed.
Look for the following signs of depression in children, especially when they’re accompanied by notable changes in the child’s behavior.
- Sleeping too much or not enough
- Withdrawing from friends
- Changes in appetite
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of guilt or hopelessness
- Loss of interest in hobbies or activities
- Lack of energy
- Difficulties at school
- Reckless or dangerous behavior
- Using drugs or alcohol
What to do if Your Child is Depressed
If you think your child is depressed, it can be a frightening situation, especially if they are very young. You may worry about your child’s safety and future, and wonder how this happened. But remember that you’ve already crossed one of the biggest hurdles; you’ve recognized that your child is struggling, and may need help.
First, ask your child how they feel. Instead of using the word “depressed,” which can be associated with mental health stigma, simply ask them about their mood, and how they feel day to day. If they’ve withdrawn from friends or activities, ask why. Ask about their experiences at school, and emphasize that the conversation isn’t about grades or expectations. Your child may be closed-off at first, and this may take several patient attempts.
If your child says that they feel sad, helpless or hopeless a lot of the time, for whatever reason, the best thing you can do is work with a child therapist, counselor, or psychologist. These experts are trained to work with children and help them construct coping mechanisms, build a better self-image, resolve conflicts, and understand and manage their emotions better. Emphasize to your child that this does not mean something is “wrong” with them. Let your child decide who they wish to tell about seeing a counselor. Don’t insist that they keep it a secret, nor that they should tell everyone.
While a therapist is the best way to help your child manage depression, there are things you can do at home to help your child as well. If your child refuses therapy, consider working with a family therapist yourself to find the best ways to help your child. You might also try the following:
- Do new things together.New activities help to break up routines and inspire excitement. Be careful to choose activities that are still within your child’s comfort zone. This may be as simple as visiting a new place or trying a new restaurant.
- Volunteer together. Doing good in the community and helping others will help to build your child’s confidence and self-worth.
- Build something. Completing a project from start to finish gives the child a sense of accomplishment and meaning.
- Talk. Spend one-on-one time with your child away from other family members. Even if your child isn’t yet ready to talk about their life or their feelings, talking about anything will help them to open up.
- Ask your child for help. Showing that you have confidence in your child’s abilities and that their assistance is valuable to you can help boost their self-esteem. Emphasize that their help is more than a chore and that their help really makes a difference. Try to link this to your child’s interests if you can.
- Make art together. Drawing, painting, dancing, poetry and other art forms are helpful ways to combat depression. Try these activities together, and emphasize that the point isn’t to be an expert, or even to do it “correctly,” but rather to enjoy the activity.
- Get outside. Trees, plants, flowers, water features, animals and other natural elements have calming effects on humans. Take a walk through the park, visit a beach or botanical garden, walk a friend’s dog, or do other activities outdoors together in natural landscapes.
If you suspect your child is struggling with depression, we can help.
If your child shows signs of depression, this does not mean they will have depression for life. Intervening early and working with a professional can help reduce the effects of childhood depression, and give your child a better outlook on life. If you’re interested in learning more about counseling for your child, please contact us today to schedule a consultation.