By Tami Curtis, LCSW, therapist Child & Family Support Center

help-with-children-and-depressionA handful of years back my young daughter, noticing the books that frequented my night stand, asked, “Mom, why do you need books to know how to raise us?” I quickly shared with her the fact that children don’t come with an instruction manual, and expressed my desire to do it right. She is our oldest and we often joke with her about being our “experiment child,” because we didn’t know what we were doing yet. We only get one chance at raising our children and there is a lot to know about these young people that we have to learn.

One area of concern for many parents is the issue of depression. Maybe you have wondered if children can suffer from depression? Perhaps you have worried that your child might be depressed, but weren’t sure if it was depression or just normal mood changes involving anger and sadness. The truth is, children can experience depression, depression is different from sadness, depression can be difficult to detect in children, and, fortunately, depression is treatable.

Depression is different from the normal emotion of sadness, although depression symptoms often involve persistent feelings of sadness. Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT describes the difference between sadness and depression this way: The sad person after expressing emotions will feel better, but the depressed person may not find relief. Sadness doesn’t typically involve mean thoughts about oneself, or hopeless or suicidal thoughts, but depression often does. Sadness doesn’t involve distorted perception (e.g., feeling like others would be better off without me), or loss of perspective (feeling trapped with no way out) where depression usually does. Lastly, sadness doesn’t interfere with feeling other emotions, while depression often prevents feeling a range of specific emotions.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) lists the following signs and symptoms of depression and warns that a child showing multiple symptoms for more than two weeks may indicate depression:

  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed
    activities, interests and hobbies
  • Withdrawal from family and friends;
    difficulty with relationships; poor communication
  • Reduced ability to function during events/activities both at home or away
  • Continuous feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, helplessness, low self esteem or guilt
  • Increased irritability, anger or agitation
  • Increased acting-out and/or risk-taking behaviors
  • Vocal outbursts, increased tearfulness or reduced emotional expression
  • Sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Drop in school performance; frequent absences
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits (significant weight changes, excessive sleep or insomnia)
  • Indecisiveness, lack of concentration, or forgetfulness
  • Fatigue and low energy; boredom
  • Frequent physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse
  • Focus on morbid/negative themes
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide (expressed or hinted)
  • Giving away possessions; talk of or efforts
    to run away from home

Not all children will experience all of these symptoms. More than likely children will experience different symptoms at different times. If you observe symptoms of depression in your child for at least two weeks, schedule a visit with their doctor to first rule out any physical reasons for the symptoms, and second, to receive a referral for a mental health consultation with a mental health care professional who specializes in children, if needed.

What might lead to depression in childhood? A combination of many factors relating to physical health, family history, genetic vulnerability, environment and life events can play a role. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry there are some factors that put children at high risk for depression such as: children who are under stress, who have experienced loss or have learning, attention or conduct disorders. Research shows among children under age 10, more boys experience depression, whereas by age 16, more girls experience depression.

Additionally, there are many triggers that may contribute to childhood depression such as parental divorce, hostility from parents/step parents, being ignored by parents/step parents, punitive and authoritarian parenting styles, parents withdrawing love, being bullied (either by peers or siblings) and using Facebook. Yes, you read that correctly: Two recent studies both found a correlation between Facebook and unhappiness. One study published in 2014 in Computers in Human Behavior, reported consistent use of Facebook increased users’ risk of depression. Participants in the study reported feeling lonelier and less happy when logging off of the site after a viewing session. The study in 2013 found frequent Facebook users showed a decrease in short-term happiness, and reported lower overall life satisfaction.

Depression makes it difficult to feel connected to people and can negatively affect a child’s future due to continued low academic achievement, missed social opportunities, inability to reach his or her full potential, the possibility of suicide and the increased risk of experiencing severe depression in adulthood.

Luckily, depression is treatable. Know the warning signs and seek professional help for evaluation if you suspect something is wrong. There should be no shame or stigma attached to concern for the psychological wellbeing of a child. On a daily basis, work
to build a positive relationship with your child through communicating openly, listening to your child, allowing them space to express how they feel without judging them, play with them, follow their lead, engage in a healthy lifestyle (including eating nutritious foods and exercising). Strive to make social and family interactions more rewarding than isolating activities, (i.e. video games, excessive alone time in bedroom) engage in physical activities, make opportunities for free, creative, unstructured play a priority along with academics, and implement stress-reduction techniques to offset the increasing stressors of an achievement-oriented society geared toward children at younger and younger ages.

If your child is struggling with depres- sion you don’t have handle it alone. The old proverb stating, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is ever-more important today in an increasing isolative society. Take advantage of your “village” including family, friends, neighbors, schools, religious organizations, doctors and local professional agencies. It is smart to ask for help, and it is not a sign of weakness. As author and educator, Ellen Galinsky said, “The future of the world is in very small hands.”

If your child is having suicidal thoughts, call the Child & Family Support Center crisis hotline at 435-752-8880 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a professional or go to the nearest emergency room.