Childhood Depression: What Parents Need To Know
Childhood depression is a serious medical condition that leads to persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest in activities. It affects how a child thinks, feels, and behaves, and it can interfere with school, friends, and family. Depression is different from the normal “ups and downs” that all kids experience as they grow. With depression, the “downs” last for weeks or longer and prevent kids from functioning normally.
Childhood depression is real and it can be treated. But first, parents need to recognize the signs of depression in their child.
What is Childhood Depression?
Depression is a serious mood disorder that can negatively affect how a person feels, thinks, and behaves. Childhood depression is different from the normal “ups and downs” that occur during childhood and adolescence. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 33 children and adolescents in the United States may have clinical depression. That means that for every classroom of 30 students, one child is likely to be affected by this disorder.
Childhood depression is often not recognized by parents or teachers because it can look differently than what adults experience. For example, a child who seems consistently sad, irritable, or angry may be depressed. A child who withdraws from friends or activities he or she once enjoyed may also be experiencing depression. Childhood depression can also manifest itself through physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches with no known medical cause.
Symptoms of Childhood Depression
Depression is more than just feeling sad. It’s a real medical condition that affects a person’s mood, thoughts, body, and behavior.
For children and teens, depression may look different than it does for adults. They may seem irritable or angry instead of sad. They may not want to do things they usually enjoy or spend time with people they love. And unlike adults with depression, kids may not be able to explain how they feel.
The sooner you spot the signs and symptoms of childhood depression in your child, the sooner you can get them treatment. Treatment can make a big difference in how your child feels.
Here are some common symptoms of childhood depression:
- Persistent sadness or irritability
- Crying more often than usual
- Withdrawing from friends and activities
- Loss of interest in hobbies or sports
- Poor grades at school or acting out in class
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits (like eating more or sleeping less)
- Fatigue or low energy levels
- Unexplained aches and pains (like headaches)
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
Causes of Childhood Depression
There are many possible causes of childhood depression, including biological, psychological, and social factors.
Biological factors that may contribute to childhood depression include a family history of depression, an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, and medical conditions such as an underactive thyroid gland or anemia.
Psychological factors that may lead to childhood depression include low self-esteem, poor coping skills, and negative thinking patterns.
Social factors that may cause or worsen childhood depression include bullying.
Risk Factors for Childhood Depression
There are many risk factors for childhood depression, and it is important for parents to be aware of them. Some of the most common risk factors include:
- Family history of depression: Children who have a parent or other close relative with depression are at an increased risk for developing the condition themselves.
- Traumatic life events: Children who have experienced trauma, such as the death of a loved one, physical or sexual abuse, or bullying, are also at an increased risk for depression.
- Poor coping skills: Children who have difficulty coping with stress or managing their emotions are also more likely to develop depression.
- Certain medical conditions: Children with certain medical conditions, such as epilepsy or cancer, are also at an increased risk for depression.
Diagnosing Childhood Depression
Childhood depression is not simply a case of the blues. It’s a serious mental health condition that can have a profound effect on your child’s life—and your own. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 5 percent of kids between the ages of 9 and 17 have clinical depression. That’s more than five million American kids.
Many parents don’t realize their child is depressed because they mistake the symptoms for normal teenage angst or adolescent rebellion. It’s important to be alert to the signs and symptoms of childhood depression and take them seriously. If you think your child may be depressed, talk to his or her pediatrician or make an appointment with a mental health professional.
There is no single test that can diagnose childhood depression. The diagnosis will be based on a comprehensive assessment that includes:
- A thorough medical history
- A physical exam
- A mental health evaluation
- Lab tests, if necessary
Treating Childhood Depression
There is a range of effective treatments for childhood depression, including:
- Psychotherapy: Therapy can help your child understand and work through their feelings. It can also teach them healthy coping skills.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy helps children identify and change negative thinking patterns.
- Family therapy: This can help improve communication and problem-solving skills within the family.
- Medication: In some cases, medication may be recommended in addition to therapy.
Prevention of Childhood Depression
There are many things that parents can do to help prevent childhood depression. Some of the most important things include:
- Encouraging your child to express their feelings openly and honestly
- Spending time with your child doing activities that they enjoy
- Helping your child to develop positive coping skills for dealing with stress and adversity
- Ensuring that your child has a strong support network of family and friends
If you are concerned that your child may be at risk for depression, it is important to talk to their doctor. There are also many helpful resources available online and through national organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics.
It is important for parents to remember that childhood depression is a real and serious illness. If you think your child may be depressed, it is important to seek professional help. Early intervention can make a big difference in the child’s ability to cope with the illness and to lead a productive and happy life.