Although considered an adult condition, depression can affect children, adolescents, and teens as well. Learning to recognize the signs of childhood depression can help you seek treatment early and help them recover.
Depression in children
Do you think your child is suffering from depression? Do they seem sad, cranky, or withdrawn? Although feeling sad and lonely is a normal part of childhood, children can often develop different forms of depression in varying degrees.
If your child has been experiencing chronic sadness for over 2 weeks and if their social functioning, education and relationships are getting affected, then seeking a medical diagnosis and treatment may be necessary. Major depression is a common psychiatric disorder observed in adults worldwide.
Although it is rare in children, some children and adolescents can develop this mood disorder which affects their thoughts, emotions and behavior.
Research shows that clinical depression in children can develop as early as age 3. Moreover, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has found that around 5 percent of children and adolescents are affected by this mental illness at any given time.
“Childhood depression is a serious and relapsing psychiatric disorder,” states a 2009 study. Depressed kids tend to be hopeless, withdrawn, lack motivation and energy, have sleep and appetite disturbances, psychomotor agitation, extreme guilt, low mood and low self-esteem. They are incapable of enjoying pleasurable activities that other children may find appealing.
When in school, such children tend to have poor academic performance due to lack of concentration. They may even appear annoyed, irritable, moody and aggressive at times. They may feel worthless, lonely, unloved and unwanted.
Unfortunately, such depressed feelings can make children suicidal and preoccupied with thoughts of death. Studies show that suicide is the third most common cause of death among sufferers and childhood depression “is a major risk factor for suicide.”
The sad truth is even kids can engage in dangerous and reckless activities that can harm them. This is why parents must take the warning signs seriously and consult a medical professional immediately. “Youth depression is associated with a range of adverse outcomes including social and educational impairments as well as both physical and mental health problems later in life,” explains a 2013 study.
Can children be depressed?
Depression not only affects adults but people of all ages, including children. But as children are unable to understand their own emotions and parents usually fail to notice the symptoms in their kids, childhood depression typically goes unnoticed and untreated.
A 2018 study explains that major depressive disorder (MDD) is among the most widely prevalent mental illnesses among children and adolescents. However, as the symptoms in children may vary from the diagnosis criteria in adults, “it is often unrecognized and untreated.” Depression is not just about feeling sad, it is a debilitating mood disorder that can become life-threatening.
Although the condition can be genetic and tends to run in families, most children develop the conditions due to certain adverse early life experiences. Negative experiences such as abuse, neglect, trauma, bullying, loss of a loved ones, school difficulties or some other factors such as physical illness, comorbid conditions or personality disorders can cause childhood depression. Apart from these, brain chemistry and imbalances in neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin) & hormones may also play a crucial role.
Researchers claim that childhood depression is “an important public health issue,” and that it deserves special attention due to its adverse and lasting impact on child development, including physiological alterations and cognitive & social impairments.
Early intervention and management can help significantly in preventing it from becoming a lifelong problem. “Both psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy have been found to be beneficial for the acute treatment of children and adolescents with depressive disorders,” states a 2000 study.
Identifying depression in children
As pediatric depression manifests very differently than in adults, it can often be difficult to recognize the signs and symptoms of this mood disorder in children.
Studies have observed that depression is not necessarily the primary symptom in children as they may not even appear depressed, sad or have a low mood. This is why learning to identify the most common warning signs of this psychiatric illness in children is essential for parents. Here are a few common signs of childhood depression that you need to be aware of –
A. Depressive symptoms in children
1. Sadness, hopelessness, being tearful or crying
2. Low mood or frequent mood swings
3. Fatigue or lack of energy
4. Irritability or anger
5. Changes in appetite or weight
6. Sleep disturbances, nightmares or insomnia
7. Anhedonia or inability to enjoy fun activities
8. Painful & non-painful physical/somatic symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, abdominal pain
9. Behavioral issues at school, like absenteeism, lack of participation etc
10. Problems with social skills, such as isolation or defiance
11. Difficulty concentrating or inattention
12. Poor academic performance, like refusing or forgetting to complete tasks and assignments
13. Short-term memory problems
14. Hypersensitivity or being slow
15. Forgetfulness, distractibility & restlessness
16. Separation anxiety when removed from parents
17. Excessive guilt and shame
18. Suicidal thoughts and tendencies