A decade ago, depression was considered an adults-only problem. Today, though, we’re well aware that it can occur in children, too. Of course, it’s worrisome to think that young children and teens can become depressed. However, it’s important for parents to know not only that it’s possible, but why it’s happening, what its telltale signs are and how they can help a depressed child.
Let me tackle the root causes of childhood depression first. There is general agreement among mental health professionals that growing up now is much harder than years ago. That’s partly because children of the past got more reassurance at home and from extended family members and neighborhood friends. Many of today’s children just don’t have the emotional support that children used to have.
Furthermore, over the past 25 years we have seen parents spend less and less time with their children. One of the reasons for that is the dramatic increase of divorce, which also forces children to cope with the burden of depressed parents, remarriage and stepparents. Add to the mix another dramatic change in family structure: in the past it was the norm for grandparents to live close by and help with the grandchildren. Today, many grandparents live far away from their grandchildren; in some sad cases, they’re estranged from them because of the bitterness of divorce.
Still another reason depression is on the rise among kids has nothing to do with family life. It’s the increasing problem of bullying. Research on bullying shows that its victims often become depressed.
As if all this isn’t enough, children of today feel more exposed to danger than they ever did before. Because of Cable TV and the Internet, children come face to face with graphic examples of troubles all over the world. Such exposure can make a child feel anxious, vulnerable—and, yes, depressed.
Now that I have identified some of the factors behind the increase in childhood depression, I want to discuss how a parent might be able to tell if a child is depressed. Since children often show their depression through troublesome behaviour, a parent could wrongly identify it as the normal moodiness of childhood. Below, I have listed a few behavioural changes that can alert parents to possible depression in a youngster:
Your child’s performance at school drops
He’s less interested in friends and may start to isolate himself
His mood is more unhappy than happy
He’s belligerent and irritable
He experiences mood swings
He complains of stomachaches and headaches
He has problems sleeping
He’s constantly complaining and feeling sorry for himself
He’s not much fun to be with
He makes statements such as, “I hate my life,” or “I wish I was dead.”
So, what can a parent do if he suspects his child is depressed? If three or more of the signs noted above persist for a month or more, I recommend taking the following steps.
First, schedule a conference with your child’s teacher. You want to gather information on how she’s doing academically and socially. And you need to find out if anyone is bullying her. Remember, your child spends most of her day in school. If she’s experiencing trouble in the classroom or on the playground, it could trigger a depression.
If your child is falling behind in school, you might consider hiring a tutor. Children become very upset when they see their classmates succeeding with work they can’t handle.
If she hasn’t made friends, encourage her to find at least one child she likes in class and invite him or her over. If you happen to know a parent of one of your child’s classmates, take the initiative yourself.
And what about bullying? If that’s the problem, schedule a conference with the principal or school psychologist. Many schools offer sessions in conflict mediation to help children work out their problems with each other.
When your child’s not at school, make it a priority to spend more one-on-one time with him. Depressed children often feel unloved and undervalued. Private time with a parent is both soothing and reassuring. During this time together, help your child find an activity that he can excel in and be passionate about. Success with skating, playing the guitar, drawing, crafts or cooking can immeasurably boost a depressed child’s self-esteem. Explore scouting organizations, Boys & Girls Clubs or the neighborhood Y, all of which offer wonderful opportunities for children to socialize and try out new activities.
Perhaps your child would benefit from the nurturing of extended family? If any of your child’s grandparents live nearby, schedule regular overnights at their house.
Finally, if none of these ideas help, it’s probably time to consult your family doctor or pediatrician, who can refer you to a child psychiatrist or psychologist.
If you want to learn more about childhood depression, the following web sites offer helpful information
This is the site for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Once there, search using the keyword “depression.”
This is the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s website.
For parents interested in reading about depression among teen-agers
, I strongly recommend the book More than Moody: Recognizing and Treating Adolescent Depression
by Harold Koplewicz.
Above all, please remember that if you think your child is depressed, you’re not alone. There is a great deal of help and support available, so don’t hesitate to seek it out. You and your child will be glad you did.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.