Depression is the single most common mental health problem in adults and is becoming increasingly more common in children and teens. An estimated 5 percent of children and teens will have symptoms of depression at any given time. Children, however, are often not able to articulate their feelings as clearly as adults and have difficulty asking for help. It is important for parents and caregivers to recognize the signs and symptoms of childhood depression so that they can advocate best for their child’s treatment.
The warning signs of childhood depression fall basically into four different categories: emotional signs, cognitive signs (those involving thinking), physical complaints, and behavioral changes. A depressed child does not usually display every symptom.
The emotional signs of childhood depression include sadness, loss of pleasure or interest, anxiety and irritability. A sad child may feel withdrawn and hopeless and cry easily. A child suffering from loss of pleasure may consistently complain of being bored and express no interest in activities or sports they previously found enjoyable. The anxious child may be tense or easily panic without an apparent logical reason. An irritable child often feels worried and can lash out in anger as a result of the turmoil they are experiencing.
The cognitive signs of childhood depression are extremely important because a depressive mood distorts the thought process and can cause negative, self-deprecating thoughts to overwhelm the child. These thoughts can make a child resistant to encouragement or parental concern. The signs to look for include a pervasive negativity, belief that they are worthless, sense of helplessness, difficulty organizing thoughts or completing tasks, intense sensitivity to criticism and suicidal thoughts. A child with a negative view becomes very pessimistic and finds little good in themselves, their life and even the world. Depressed children can obsess over their faults and perceived failures often to point of feeling tremendous guilt and worthlessness. The hopeless child believes there is nothing they can do to change their feelings of depression because this is their only experience. Adults are not the only ones who experience and express thoughts of death when in the depths of depression. Children often express these thoughts but are not able to explain what is at the root of their suicidal feelings.
Childhood depression has a variety of physical symptoms including sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, agitation and/or lethargy. Children suffering from depression often have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. They can wake too early or oversleep which translates into difficulties staying awake and alert at school. These children often find themselves losing interest in eating or overeating to compensate for their disturbing feelings. Children with depression can show signs of agitation by being unable to sit still and constantly fidgeting. Children showing signs of lethargy may be slower to react and be less playful than usual.
Physical signs of Childhood depression are usually the most obvious and as a result are often the most widely parent reported symptoms. Physical symptoms of depression include self-harm, clingy/demanding behavior, preoccupation with specific activities, avoidance and general restlessness. Depressed kids and teens may cause themselves physical pain or self-injury. Cutting is common among depressed teens as is excessive risk taking behavior. Children often become more clingy or demanding in their relationships and become dependent upon others to build their sense of security. The depressed child can become preoccupied with certain activities and engage in them excessively. Parents often report the only thing a child wants to do is play video games for hours or they become overly interested in food. Avoidance and withdrawal are hallmarks of childhood depression. A child suddenly does not want to go to school or events with friends and family. Parents report that their depressed child will want to spend hours in their room rather than engage in activities that they previously enjoyed. Restlessness associated with depression can lead to acting out in school and engaging in reckless behavior.
If you feel as though your child is suffering from childhood depression the Center for Growth can help. Psychotherapy is helpful to children and may be all that is necessary to help them sort out their feelings and learn the skills they need to cope with life’s stresses.
Research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most successful forms of treatment for childhood depression. This type of therapy focuses upon the role of thinking and belief systems as the root of depression. People with depression have thoughts and belief patterns that give them a negative perception of themselves and the world around them. During cognitive-behavioral therapy, the therapist works with the child to help them recognize their depressed thought pattern and realize a more positive and realistic view. Play therapy can help combat the symptoms of depression by engaging the child in their most basic form of expression in order to help them work through their inner conflicts, anxieties and insecurities.