For parents, there is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a sudden, downward shift in your child’s mood. Watching your little one, typically so full of laughter and life, dissolve into a sad, reclusive, and moody being is difficult and frustrating. We parents want to get to the bottom of the shift in behavior and humor, but if a child is experiencing depression, they probably don’t know what is behind their sadness any more than you do. So what about Childhood Depression?
Some people believe that depression is an issue that only affects adults and teens, but children can experience it just as we do.
The signs and symptoms of childhood depression
According to The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), depression in children is characterized by:
- Frequent crying and unexplained sadness
- Drastic changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Lack of energy, no interest in once-loved activities, poor concentration
- Sudden changes in school attendance and performance
- Low self-esteem, isolation, and difficulty with relationships
- Irritability, hostility, and unexplained anger
- Poor concentration and increased boredom
- Hopelessness and strong reactions to failure or rejection
- Complaints of headache, stomach ache, and other physical illnesses
- Efforts, or talking about plans to run away from home
- Self destructive behavior, attempts or thoughts of suicide
Just like with adults, there are different types of Childhood Depression
Psychology Today details the three major types of depression:
- Major depressive disorder, also called unipolar depression, causes the sufferer to not be able to easily carry out everyday tasks, such as eating, sleeping, and studying. Enjoying once-pleasurable activities, such as watching movies or playing sports, is nearly impossible.
- Dysthymia is a longer term depression, but with less severe symptoms. The child is able to basically function, but does not feel the same kind of joy in activities that used to bring them happiness.
- Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of deep depression, interspersed with bouts of mania. The manic episodes are marked by excitement, energy, and a lack of judgement or self-control.
What causes Childhood Depression?
Unfortunately, there is no “easy” answer to this. Depression can be caused by one or many factors, including biochemical, psychological, genetic, and environmental. Some children are simply prone to it (check your family history for other members with the same issue), and some experience it after psychological trauma. Kids who have learning, conduct, attention, or anxiety disorders are more likely to develop depression, as well as those who are under a lot of stress (like having experienced a death in the family or their own parents’ divorce).
To understand a depressed child, first you must understand that depression is not just how a person is feeling, but is actually a disorder of the brain. MRI’s and other brain imaging technologies show that a depressed person’s brain actually works and reacts differently than “normal” people’s. The sections that control sleep, mood, appetite, and reasoning do not work normally. It is essential to have patience with the child and know that simply willing the child to “cheer up” will not solve the problem, but could actually exasperate it.
Are bullying and Childhood Depression related?
Interestingly enough, depression can be both a cause and an effect of bullying in children. According to StopBullying.gov, kids who are bullied by others may experience:
- depression and anxiety
- loneliness and solitude
- health complaints
- loss of interest in formerly enjoyed activities
- drops in grades, attendance and performance at school
- a feeling of needing to retaliate with violence against the bullies
- thoughts or attempts of suicide
Even bystanders or witnesses to bullying can be affected by the events and begin to experience depressive symptoms. Bullies themselves may also be suffering from depression – their own unexplained sadness and mood shifts can cause them to act out and be aggressive to their peers.
On the other hand, a child who is experiencing any of the different types of depression may find themselves suddenly on the receiving end of a bully’s physical or emotional aggression. Maia Szalavits, a neuroscientist journalist for TIME.com writes that research has shown depressive symptoms can cause a child to turn inward and isolate themselves, which can actually attract the attention of peers who victimize others.
How to help your depressed child fight Childhood Depression
Depression is not a condition that should be ignored or left to resolve itself. Kids can benefit from seeing a psychologist or therapist, who can help determine the cause of the sadness and anxiety and help to resolve it. Trained professionals are able to talk to children in ways that help a child to open up and freely talk about what is bothering them. AACAP reports that treatment typically calls for both individual and family therapy, and sometimes medication. If left untreated, a child with depression can spiral down and wither, and potentially end their own life.