Is Your Child Depressed? How to Look for Signs of Depression in Children

Many assume that children are unable to suffer from depression. They view children as too young and innocent to undergo a complex emotion such as depression. They look at the responsibility-free life of kids and cannot believe that they would be encumbered by mental illness.

The tragic truth is that children, starting from as young as 3, can and do suffer from depression. Children can suffer from the same severity of depression as adults. In fact, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young children under the age of 15 worldwide.

Depression and mood disorders already hold a stigmatized place in society. This stigma is exacerbated when depression is found in young people. When it comes to depression in children, it’s like we have a double blinder on.

It’s important to leave behind our prejudices and open our eyes to the signs of depression in children. Early identification is the best way to help kids get back to being happy kids and prevent the tragic consequences that may come with untreated depression.

What Is Childhood Depression?

Childhood depression holds many of the same characteristics as adult depression. Just as with adults, childhood depression can either be inferred from actions or the stated feelings of the child.

Childhood depression involves feelings of worthlessness, sadness, and the belief that nothing he or she does makes a difference. In turn, these types of attitudes and thinking patterns lead to behaviors that reinforce the negative feelings.

For example, a child may be feeling as though they are stupid or unable to learn at the same rate as those around them. These negative feelings will handicap their ability to try in school, which will lead to poor grades, confirming the child’s fears. Around 10 percent of children in the United States suffer from some form of depression before age 12.

How Do Children Develop Depression?

Childhood depression is developed through three negative thinking patterns.

1. Unfulfilled Desires

The first is when a child struggles with unfulfilled desires. When a child desires something but deems that they are “not good enough” or otherwise unable to achieve this desire, this can lead to depression.

For children who have this thinking pattern set up, failures can hit hard. Normally functioning children and adults will face failure but believe that they are able to either get over the failure or manage it properly. Children prone to depression will instead see failures as reflective of inadequacy.

2. Low Social Ability

The second contributor to childhood depression is a low sense of social ability. Children may feel unable to form positive social relationships. A child will not feel as though they can make friends, or may feel as though their family does not love them.

As a result, they will adopt withdrawn, sulky, or aggressive social behaviors, which will be a barrier to making friends or being treated with affection.

Is Your Child Depressed? How to Look for Signs of Depression in Children

3. Frequent Negative Thoughts

A child may become depressed when they lack the ability to control negative thinking. Everyone gets despondent from time to time, especially when facing illness, losses, and failures. However, most of us are able to bounce back fairly quickly and return to a healthy emotional level. If a child lacks the ability to pull themselves out of negative thinking patterns, they will remain in a toxic cycle of recurrent, negative thoughts.

Who Childhood Depression Affects

The incidence of childhood depression is greater for certain high-risk populations. Risk factors include:

  • Children with a family history of depression
  • Children of divorce
  • Siblings of hospitalized children
  • Children with hyperactivity or attention deficit disorders
  • Children of lower socioeconomic status
  • Children suffering from a chronic illness
  • Incarcerated children
  • Pregnant teenagers

Signs of Depression In Children

There are several signs to look for when you’re trying to understand if a child may be depressed. If the child is part of one of the aforementioned high-risk groups, it is even more important to watch out for these warning signs.

Depressed Mood

Although all children will get sad from time to time, a frequent sadness is the first sign of possible depression in children. Children with moderate to severe depression look distinctly unhappy. Smiles are fleeting and quickly replaced by bland, frozen looks. You can piece together how long a child is unhappy during the day by talking to him or her, as well as teachers or parents.

Anhedonia

Anhedonia means the inability to find pleasure. Having fun is an integral part of a child’s life and a necessary component for learning. Kids with depression are often unable to describe what they do for fun or have lost interest in their favorite activities.

Seemingly fun activities (like a trip to Disney World) do not create the same excitement and anticipation in children with depression as they do in children without depression. The child often reports persistent boredom and ennui.

Low Self-Esteem

Children with low self-esteem will describe themselves negatively. They may say they are stupid, unpopular, or admit that friends call them derogatory nicknames. In reality, depressed children may not be getting teased more than any other child, but their low self-esteem causes them to be especially sensitive to real or perceived rejections and derogatory nicknames.

Guilt

Guilt may seem to overlap with low self-esteem. A child will often describe feeling guilty at being unable to fulfill the expectations of other people.

Social Withdrawal

Children with depression are usually able to socialize with other children normally prior to their depression. This means that during the onset of depression, these children often already have friends. When they become depressed, the child will withdraw socially.

They will report that their friends do not like them, will decline going to play with them, or avoid them during school. These types of behaviors may lead to a child losing their friends and social isolation. Children with mild depression respond by seeking friendship from a dog or cat. Children with major depression no longer care about having friends.

Poor Academic Performance

Children with depression often performed in school adequately prior to the depression. Poor school performance in kids with depression stems from lack of interest in any activity and from difficulty concentrating. Depressed children turn inward, preoccupied with their own worries and thoughts. They tune out the exterior world.

Complaints of Fatigue

Complaints of fatigue are common among children with depression. The child often reports taking voluntary naps or feeling too tired to engage in activities.

Motor Slowdown

Kids with depression often have low energy, particularly if they are moderately or severely depressed. For example, they may sit with a slumped posture and stare at the floor for hours.

Slow Speech

Kids with depression often answer questions in one-word or two-word sentences delivered in a monotone.

Difficulty Sleeping and Resting

A large number of children with depression have difficulty sleeping. Children often report disturbed sleeping patterns, such as difficulty going to sleep, insomnia in the middle of the night, or waking up extremely early.

Poor Appetite

Kids with depression will show decreased interest in foods they previously enjoyed, and will often have a lowered appetite overall.

Death Ideation or Suicide Attempts

Children with moderate to severe depression have morbid or suicidal thoughts. Death ideation may center around a real event, such as the death of a pet or grandparent. Instead of reflecting on the person’s life or on their sadness at losing the person, they will constantly ruminate on the theme of death itself. They may create elaborate fantasies surrounding the real death. Depressed children also may show morbid ideation without the death of someone they know.

Many children with depression have a plan to commit suicide and think about their plans actively over time. Ask children directly about their suicide plans or suicidal thoughts to assess if a child is suicidal.How to Look for Signs of Depression in Children

Substance Abuse

Older children and teenagers will seek substances to self-treat their depression, and may fall into abusing drugs and alcohol as a result.

Other Symptoms

Irritability, weeping, or wanting to cry are seen in childhood depression, occurring more often in younger children under 8 years old. Children rarely report crying, but more readily describe episodes in which they “feel like crying.”

Children with depression often complain of stomach aches, leg pains, and headaches, even if they are physically healthy.

How to Help a Child With Depression

Seek support from a mental health professional as soon as possible — don’t try to treat a child with depression on your own. There are professionals who specialize in child and adolescent psychiatry.

Most of the time, treatment options include psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which trains children to escape negative thinking patterns. For older children, health care professionals may prescribe antidepressant medication as well. If the child is suicidal, hospitalization may be required to protect the child’s life.

Going through the process of caring and helping to treat a child with depressive disorder can be very stressful. If you are a parent or caretaker who is going through this process, it’s important to engage in self-care so as to not burn out. Commit to regular stress management activities, such as meditation and exercise.

Consider adding Spire to your life, which helps you manage your stress by carefully measuring signals from your body and sending you alerts when you are falling into a state of stress. This helps you understand when you need to pause and take a break for your mental health.

There is a significant amount of children who suffer from depression. Depression can cause difficulty in academic life because of its effects on concentration, affect relations with peers, and lead to substance abuse and possibly suicide. But with appropriate treatment, children can find their way back to being happy and healthy — like childhood should be.

About the Author

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Nat Eliason writes about psychology, health, travel, marketing, and a host of other things he can't use in article bios at nateliason.com

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