How to Spot Depression in Your Child (And What Steps You Can Take)
By Dr Becky Spelman
As much as it may be considered a condition exclusive to adults, depression can be just as prevalent in children. According to recent studies, as many as 3.2% of children aged between 3-17 suffer from depression. But in all likelihood, this figure probably represents an underestimate as a 2018 analysis highlighted that depression is undiagnosed in as many of 50% of children affected by it.
It means that as parents, guardians, and caregivers, there is a significant onus on being aware of the nuances of how depression in all of its various guises presents itself. It’s been demonstrated that early-onset depression is immensely treatable in young children. But if it’s left undiagnosed and untreated, it can often reoccur throughout adult life and has been associated with problems such as criminality, substance, abuse and suicidality.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression in Your Child
As has been said on many occasions, depression is more than just feeling sad. It can, of course, be a symptom. But it does not confirm a case of depression just by presenting by itself. There are other factors that come into play and also need to be considered. Depression in children can affect multiple aspects of their mood and behaviour. It’s actually not uncommon for young children to complain of physical symptoms instead of emotional distress. They might also have a deep-seated fear of abandonment, develop behavioural problems and generally display signs of restlessness and agitation. Here are some of the most common signs to look at for if you’re concerned your child may be depressed:
Loss of interest in activities that were once their favourite pass times.
Withdrawal from social situations and regular family activity.
A distinct lack of motivation in anything they asked to do.
Changes in sleeping patterns – either too much or too little.
Trying to run away from home or in social situations.
Either having thoughts of or talking about death/suicide.
Giving all the possessions away – a lack of apathy for possessions.
Feelings of hopelessness/sadness/apathy.
Low self-esteem/confidence and negative self-talk.
Difficulty concentrating in school and/or in social situations
Use of alcohol and drugs (in teenagers)
Types of Depressive Disorder
Major Depressive Disorder (MDD): Here, your child would experience severe episodes of depression. In the case of teens, symptoms must last for a total of two weeks. Symptoms may include withdrawal, sleep issues, anxiety, changes in appetite and uncontrolled emotions. Around 2-3% of children under the age of ten are at risk of developing MDD with that figure rising to between 5-8% between the ages of 10 and 14.
Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD): This form of depression was formerly known as dysthymia or dysthymic disorder. It’s a chronic, albeit milder form of mood disorder than MDD. In adults, the required length of symptoms being present is two years while in children, that figure is brought down to just one. Children with PDD are generally higher functioning than those with MDD, displaying similar symptoms but in a much less severe fashion.
Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD): This condition has been recently added to the DSM-5 for children up to 18 years of age. DMDD is a condition that’s best characterised by extreme anger and irritability, including frequent tempers and outbursts. But this is more than just a moodiness and instead describes a child who’s fallen into a pattern of episodic and violent behaviours which can’t be controlled.
Bipolar: Depression may also be a part of bipolar disorder. In this form of depressive disorder, the child experiences either manic or hypomanic episodes, followed by bouts of depression. However, the onset of bipolar disorder typically occurs in late adolescence to early adulthood. Before the age of nine, children may show irritability, but after crossing that threshold, the symptoms begin to closely resemble those of adults. These include risk-taking, being overly excited, racing thoughts and having little to no sleep.
How You Can Help Your Child
Stress has longed been linked with the onset of both anxiety and depression. And so, those who are already susceptible to depression may find themselves at higher risk if they’re experiencing chronic stress. While it’s not always possible to reduce stress down to zero, the following actions can help:
Choose a more relaxed parenting style and remember the need to be person-centred.
Encourage them to pursue more activities that make them happy.
Encourage them to get regular exercise.
Help Your Child Improve the Quality of Their Diet
A healthy diet is an often-overlooked cornerstone of alleviating depression without the use of medications or extensive therapy. Much of the food that’s marketed to children is overly processed, full of hidden sugars, oils and additives that can act as neuro-toxins. As far as possible, you should try incorporating whole foods into your child’s diet that are nutrient-dense – full vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Alcohol and Drug Use
In children who’re entering an adolescent stage of life, recreational drugs and alcohol abuse can exacerbate a pre-existing condition and sometimes even be the root cause of much a child’s issues if they’ve fallen in a cycle of behaviour. You’ll need to monitor your child’s activities carefully to discern whether or not this is the path they’ve gone down.
A formal type of treatment plan will often include a combination of psychotherapy, lifestyle changes and in some cases, medication. First and foremost, it’s the role of your chosen therapist to educate your child about their condition. This is important to help them understand they’re not being punished; they’re no worse than anyone else, and that depression can happen to anyone. The most common forms of psychotherapy used may include cognitive behavioural therapy, support counselling, and interpersonal therapy. But there may also be a need for family therapy where individual parenting styles and other domestic issues might be the cause of your child’s depression. An effective treatment strategy for your child will involve both yourself and child, along with your therapist, doctor, school, preferred psychotherapist – and where medication is a requirement, a psychiatrist.
Depressive disorders can often have a huge effect on families, so it’s important all those involved in your child’s recovery be as well informed and educated as they can be about the situation. This will ensure you can spot developing symptoms earlier and know how to respond as a caregiver to alleviate some of the distress and emotional dissonance caused by their condition.
About the author:
Dr Becky Spelman is a leading UK Psychologist who’s had great success helping her clients manage and overcome a multitude of mental illnesses.
***If your child is struggling with depression and think you might benefit from speaking to someone, we offer a FREE 15-MINUTE CONSULTATION with one of our specialists to help you find the best way to move forward. You can book yours here.
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