According to the CDC, the number of children with depression has increased over time, with 3.2% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 having a current diagnosis of depression. It is important to spot the signs of depression in children and the possible contributing factors.
Most adults remember childhood as being carefree and fun. It is therefore alarming when your child begins to exhibit signs of sadness or depression. You may feel responsible for your child’s emotional well-being, and it can be even more challenging when your child is not opening up about what is bothering him or her.
Jesus said that the kingdom of God, which is right thinking, peace, and joy, belongs to these little ones, so it is heartbreaking to see a child go through depression. However, children can receive treatment for depression just like adults, and there is hope for your child who may be struggling with depression.
Types of Depression in Children
There are many different types of depression and mood disorders that affect children, each with its own warning signs. They include the following:
Major Depressive Disorder
This is the most common kind of depression, in which the child experiences severe symptoms that can last between two weeks and several months. An episode may occur only once after a major event or change, but in most cases, the depression will return multiple times when triggered.
Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia)
This is a milder form of depression in which symptoms are similar to major depressive disorder, but instead of occurring in short episodes, the symptoms last longer. They may get more or less severe at different points in time, but they do not go away for more than two months at a time.
Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD)
DMDD is a diagnosis that is given to children who have frequent, violent temper tantrums in reaction to trivial things. In addition, they remain irritable in between tantrums. They have a short fuse. The DMDD diagnosis appreciates that for young children, depression looks more like anger than sadness.
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)
This is a condition that affects young girls around the week before their period when they experience a spike in hormones. A girl with PMDD is likely to experience feelings closer to a major depressive episode during this time.
Signs of Depression in Children
The most common signs of depression in children include the following:
Decreased interest in favorite activities. Your child no longer participates in their favorite sport or they are no longer in the mood to watch their favorite show or go to their favorite restaurant. He or she withdraws inward, turning away from things that used to bring joy.
If your child is no longer interested in the things for which he or she used to beg you, it is a possible red flag. It is better to err on the side of caution than to assume that your child has simply outgrown those things.
A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns. Depression often leads to a loss of appetite and/or a lack of sleep. This could be the result of anxiety over something that has or will happen to them at home or school. School bullies, parents divorcing, moving to a different area, and more are possible triggers for anxiety and depression.
It could also result in your child overeating comfort food or sleeping in for long periods of time. In any case, drastic changes to eating and sleeping habits must be taken seriously and addressed.
Obsessive fears or worries about death. Children who have experienced the loss of a loved one, perhaps for the first time or a terminally ill child can be taken aback by the unpredictable and inevitable nature of death. Sometimes they ask morbid questions in a bid to make sense of everything. They worry about their own death, wondering when they will have to face it.
Social isolation. Friendships are the building blocks of a person’s childhood. You should be well-versed in your child’s social circle. Who is their best friend? Who do they hang out with and where? If your child is no longer socializing with friends in favor of solitude, it is a cause for concern.
Talking about or attempting to run away from home. Children are highly impressionable and can be very impulsive. They sometimes view their parents’ authority over them as oppressive and strive for independence at any cost. Threats or attempts at running away are a means of fighting back. In most cases, the child blames the parent or guardian for their current situation and they become the object of their angst.
Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure. This can be an increase in the severity and/or frequency of temper tantrums when you say no to something or an extremely emotional reaction to failing to achieve a goal. For example, a child who was unfazed when he fell while riding a bike now smashes a puzzle he cannot solve in a fit of rage.
Frequent absences from school and/or a sudden decline in grades. Children are often ill-equipped to deal with challenges, and some resort to entirely avoiding their problems. They may skip school or fail to concentrate when they are at school, resulting in the decline of their grades. You should touch base with your child’s teachers frequently to monitor your child’s performance.
Physical symptoms with no medical cause. Depression can exhibit physical symptoms as well as emotional ones. Just as the placebo effect can make a hypochondriac feel better, depression can make a healthy person ill. The only difference is that depression’s physical symptoms are not all in your head.
Depression can result in real changes to your body. For example, depression can cause your digestion to slow down, which can result in stomach problems. Other symptoms include headaches, fatigue, chest pain, insomnia, dizziness, or light-headedness.
Frequent sadness, tearfulness, or crying. Children are highly in touch with their raw emotions. It is natural to attempt to console a crying child. The tears of a child are a painful sight to behold. Over time, they may begin to cry in private to avoid making you feel sad. Look for signs of crying like redness and puffiness of the eyes or a chapped nose. Let them know that you are okay with them expressing their emotions and that you are there for them.
How to Help a Child with Depression
Try these steps if you suspect that your child is depressed, and don’t hesitate to reach out to a counselor for further help.
Start by talking with your child. On a usual basis, you should take an interest in how your child is doing in all aspects of their life. “Establish open communication with your child before you have any concerns, so that if concerns arise, they’re comfortable talking to you about what’s going on,” says Dr. Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children’s Health and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern.
However, if there are concerns, do not assume that they will tell you when they’re feeling depressed. Young children in particular have trouble expressing their emotions in words. Adolescents and teenagers may feel shame and embarrassment over acknowledging feelings of depression. With children of all ages, it is up to parents to initiate the conversation and convey their concerns while asking questions in a loving, supportive manner.
Get other adults engaged. It is highly unlikely that you are the only adult that interacts with your child throughout the day. Consult with your child’s teachers, coaches, babysitters, and anyone else who may interact with him or her on a regular basis. Ask them if they have noticed any changes in your child’s mood or behavior. Ask for them to keep an eye on your child and inform you of any significant changes or declines in performance.
Christian Counseling for Children
Severe depression in children can hinder a child’s ability to engage in therapy. However, with medication, the child can begin to go through therapy treatment. “If a child is too depressed to engage in therapy, medication can kick-start engagement and get them to better engage with therapy and benefit from it,” says Dr. Holland. If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing depression, please contact one of our counselors to learn about treatment options.
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