When It’s Not the Blues: Depression in Children
How would you know if your child were suffering from depression? We don’t usually think about children experiencing depression, but they can suffer from depressive disorders too. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents may notice some changes in their child’s behavior. It’s possible that these changes may be related to depression, but how would you know?
Types of Depressive Disorders
A variety of depressive disorders can affect both adults and children. A major depressive episode is severe and lasts for at least two weeks. Dysthymia is a milder form, which lasts for at least two years. Bipolar disorder involves periods of severe emotional highs and lows. Seasonal affective disorder can affect adults or children in the winter, or when daylight hours are shorter. Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder involves intense anger, aggression, irritability and temper tantrums that last at least a year in children older than age 6.
One form we may notice during the COVID-19 pandemic is adjustment disorder with depressed mood. It develops in response to a traumatic event, which might include a natural disaster or death in the family.
How Do I Know if it’s Depression?
A child is not necessarily suffering from depression just because he seems sad. Fluctuations in mood are perfectly natural in children. The symptoms of depression in children include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- Low energy
- Changes in appetite (increased or decreased)
- Changes in sleep (increased or decreased)
- Excessive crying
- Physical complaints (headaches and stomachaches)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Social withdrawal
- Difficulties with usual activities (school, sports, hobbies)
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Overly critical of self and others
If the child’s symptoms are severe enough to interfere with schoolwork, family life, social life and personal interests, this is cause for concern. When several of these symptoms are present for a couple of weeks, parents should schedule an appointment with the child’s doctor. Often, there is a physical cause for these symptoms. If there is no physical ailment triggering these symptoms, parents may want to schedule an appointment with a mental health professional who specializes in treating children.
What Leads to Depression in Children?
There are a number of factors that can contribute to depressive disorders in children. It is frequently a combination of things. Depression often has a genetic factor. It also can be caused by a biochemical imbalance, poor physical health and even life events. It is possible that a stressful life event, such as dealing with the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic, could act as a trigger, especially if a child already has a genetic predisposition for depression.
When the lockdown began, many children were ripped away from their friends and schools with almost no notice. They were asked to transition to a different way of learning. Because many parents were and are still working, some children are spending their days with extended family members. Others may have parents who are working from home, and children are trying to manage their schoolwork while parents tend to their own jobs. Sports, music lessons and other familiar activities have been cancelled. They are no longer going out to eat or to the movies with family or friends. The lives of children have been harshly impacted by this pandemic.
Who’s at Risk?
Approximately 3 percent of children experience some type of depressive episode at some time. Under the age of 10, it is much more prevalent among boys than girls. It is more common when one or both parents have struggled with depression. Another risk factor is a chaotic home environment, especially where conflict or violence is present. Children are also much more likely to experience depressive episodes in families where alcohol or other substance abuse is an issue.
What is the Treatment?
Clinical depression in children is not the same as the “blues” that all children experience at times while growing up. If your child is experiencing a variety of the symptoms described above, and these symptoms have persisted for more than two weeks, it’s time to seek help. If the problem is a depressive disorder, it will not get better on its own. Treatment will be necessary.
A visit with the child’s pediatrician can rule out physical causes for the symptoms. You may then be referred to a mental health professional who specializes in treating disorders in children. Many times, talk therapy will be enough to achieve the desired results. However, medication might be necessary. A combination of the two is generally considered the best form of treatment. Parents will also usually be involved in the counseling, so that they can be given information about how they may best support their child.
There are some simple things parents can do at home to help their depressed child. Make sure your child is eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and getting daily exercise. Find ways to enjoy spending time together with your child. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important for all children, but it is especially beneficial for a depressed child.