Childhood Depression: How To Support Your Child
Childhood depression is a topic that most of us would prefer not to think about, but it’s important to be aware of the symptoms so you can help your child the best you can, writes Arlene Harris
We all feel a little down from time to time and many of us know people who have suffered from depression, but it is something we generally don’t associate with children – surely youngsters don’t have any reason to feel low?
Well unfortunately they do and current research indicates that roughly 2% of pre-pubertal children and 5% to 8% of adolescents experience clinical depression. Dr David Carey, director of Psychology at City Colleges and Dean of the College of Progressive Education, says while children can indeed suffer from feelings of despair, the symptoms are not the same as what an adult might display, so parents may need to pay more attention to their child’s moods and crucially, be aware that help is available. “Symptoms of depression in children differ from those in adults,” he says. “They can be irritable, inattentive, bored and listless, withdrawn, have academic difficulty, sullen and moody and generally seem sad and lacking in energy.
It Can Happen At Any Age
“But while sadness and moodiness are common among children and adolescents, these symptoms come and go and do not usually last for weeks at a time, unlike depression, which can strike in any age – even in the pre-school population.
However, parents need to keep in mind that depression is treatable and outcomes are usually good with the most common and most successful form of treatment being cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).
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Amanda Hough discovered to her dismay that her moody daughter was actually suffering from depression. And while she was shocked and devastated by the discovery, is determined to remain positive as several therapy sessions have helped raise the 13-year-old’s mood.
“Aishling seemed to always be cross, tearful and upset and would pick a fight with anyone,” says the 42-year-old. “This had been going on for years and I just thought it was part of her personality, but her teacher gently suggested that perhaps we should get her checked out.
“Initially I was very cross that anyone would think there was something wrong with my child, but mentioned to my GP who referred us to a specialist. She diagnosed depression and although I was utterly horrified at first, she calmed my fears and said it was nothing to worry about and she was sure that with a course of counselling, Aishling would improve.
“She has only had a few sessions so far and I have already seen an improvement, so fingers crossed it works out for her as discovering your child is depressed is really heart-breaking.”
Increased Risk If Parents Have Depression
Senior child psychologist, Peadar Maxwell says while depression is not as common in children as it is in adults, some children are more at risk than others.
“Depression is not an illness that we traditionally associate with children, but those whose parents have it are at a greater risk,” he says. “Children from chaotic or conflicted families, or children and teenagers who abuse substances like alcohol and drugs are also at greater risk. While depression affects all ages and both genders, girls are more likely to report depression during adolescence and research shows that depression is also a risk factor for suicide.”
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What Are The Signs And Symptoms?
However, the Wexford-based psychologist says there are symptoms, which parents can look out for.
“The signs and symptoms to look out for mainly reflect changes in what they would normally expect of the child or adolescent,” he says. “These changes can include unpredictable irritability or anger, looking and feeling sad or hopeless or withdrawing socially.
“Sometimes a young person doesn’t have to have all the symptoms of depression to be in need of help but parents might notice an increased sensitivity to rejection, changes in appetite (increase or decrease), sleeplessness or excessive sleeping and outbursts of upset that seems out of proportion to what just happened. Many of these behaviours could be normal adolescence or a response to a disappointment or upset but the parents I meet often report certain behaviours, which are not normal for their child – and that’s the crucial part.
“Serious symptoms can include talk of suicide or helplessness, increased acting-out of undesirable behaviours, promiscuity, or risk-taking behaviours, but also less obviously related behaviours such as frequent accidents, talking about death and dying, increased crying or reduced emotional expression and giving away possessions.”
Is It Depression Or Sadness?
According to Maxwell, knowing the difference between being sad or fed up and being depressed can be clear in some cases, but more confusing where the child is private, uncommunicative or where there is not enough family time together for the parent to observe and monitor changes in their child.
“This is an argument in favour of meals together, parent/child chats and awareness and supervision of gaming and social media use,” he advises. “The symptoms of depression are sometimes masked as a lack of interest, avoidance or anger and so depression in childhood is often undiagnosed and untreated because they are passed off as normal emotional and psychological changes which occur during growth. Good, consistent time together and communication allows parents to notice changes and to be able to be curious about their causes.
“Adolescence is where most practitioners report meeting young people with depression. There’s a lot happening developmentally, physically, socially and psychologically so the risks are higher. But a younger child can be depressed and a parent should not allow age to prevent them from discussing their concerns with their G.P. Children from families with a strong history of depression or who engage in substance misuse are not only more at risk of depression but, according to research, are more at risk of becoming depressed younger.”
How To Help Your Child:
- Treatment options for children with depression are similar to those for adults, including psychotherapy such as play therapy, counselling or CBT and medication.
- Counselling or therapy may be considered first and then perhaps medicine or a referral on if there is no significant improvement.
- The best studies to date indicate that a combination of psychotherapy and medication is most effective at treating depression.
- Don’t leave childhood depression untreated.
- Talk to your child about his feelings and the things happening at home and at school that may be bothering him.
- If you continue to be concerned tell your G.P. as some medical problems can cause mood changes or depression. Your child’s doctor may screen your child for depression and suggest where to go next. Treat any thoughts of suicide as serious.
- If a child is diagnosed with depression their parent may need to educate others that their child is not making the symptoms up, being lazy or just cranky.
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Lowering The Risk
- Parents can lower the risk of depression or help recovery by promoting health with the basics such as a healthy diet, enough sleep, exercise and positive connections with other people at home and at school.
- Limit screen time and encourage physical activity to help develop positive connections with others.
- One-to-one time with parents, praise for good behaviour and pointing out strengths builds the parent-child bond.
- Parents can provide consistency, safety and security by talking to their child about bullying as this is a major cause of mental health problems in children.
- Parents should not ignore grief or loss issues.
Click here, if you'd like to read more about caring for your child's mental health.