How to deal with a child’s depression

What you need to know about child depression, and how to address your situation.
Child depression

Luke was 11 when his parents noticed some changes in his behaviour. Normally an active and sociable child, all he wanted to do was play computer games and watch DVDs.

His circle of friends dwindled until there were only one or two mates he seemed to be bothered with. He sat around moping if he was made to go on family outings and fought a lot more with his siblings than usual.

At school his marks began to slip and his teacher reported that he seemed distracted and quiet. He was generally moody and unmotivated.

His parents, Shelley and Mark, initially assumed that his behaviour was typical of a preadolescent at the mercy of his hormones and asserting his independence. But then they remembered a friend’s son, who had displayed similar symptoms and had later been diagnosed with depression.

Shelley says she found it hard to believe Luke could be depressed, but she became seriously concerned when he no longer wanted to play his favourite sport, soccer. “He’d been fanatical about it, so I knew something was very wrong.”

She and Mark eventually took Luke to a psychologist, who diagnosed depression. They’re not sure why he developed it, but the fact he was finding his school work a lot harder may have played a part, as well as the family’s history of depression.

Luke responded well to counselling and, four years later, is mostly better. “Every now and then he gets a bit down, but we look out for it and know how to deal with it,” says Shelley. “It’s been a hard thing to go through but we’re so glad we caught it when we did.”

The bottom line

Children as young as five and six have been diagnosed with it. It may be hard to tell if they’re depressed, because some of the signs are also associated with typical preteen and teenage behaviour. Also, some of the predominant signs of depression in children are different to those seen in adults, so they’re not always detected.

Picking it up

Having the following symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean your child is depressed, but it’s worth seeking help if they consistently have any of them for more than two weeks:

  • They feel unhappy a lot

  • They don’t get any pleasure out of activities they used to like and are disinterested in them

  • They have no energy

  • They’re often irritable for no obvious reason

  • They worry excessively, often about things that shouldn’t trouble them

  • They’re prone to irrational and aggressive outbursts

  • They have difficulty sleeping

  • Their eating habits change

  • They struggle to concentrate

  • They have low self-esteem

  • They don’t want to see friends and family

  • They can’t solve problems and become very frustrated

  • They frequently complain of tummy aches or headaches

  • They start failing at school

  • Depression can sometimes be mistaken for attention deficit disorder (ADD). It’s possible to have both and sometimes kids with ADD develop depression because of their problems.

What can be done?

Treatment given depends on how severe the depression is. In mild-to-moderate cases, psychotherapy is usually the first treatment offered. This often involves cognitive behavioural therapy, which can help them to understand the connection between their feelings and thoughts and how they behave.

It teaches them to recognise negative thinking and how to deal with it. It can help them develop strategies for coping with feeling down, such as doing things that make them feel better, for example playing with a pet or talking to a friend.

They can also work on ways of dealing with anger and solving problems. Psychotherapy can also help children with severe depression but sometimes psychologists recommend they’re put on medication, which may help lift their mood so they can respond to therapy.

It’s thought that around 10% of children with depression get better on their own within three months. For others, being able to talk to an adult about how they’re feeling and putting a few simple strategies into place can make a big difference.

Meanwhile, lifestyle changes, such as making sure they exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet, may help to ease some children’s symptoms.

Take it seriously

Never think your child is too young to be depressed. If you see any of the signs or are worried about changes to their behaviour or personality, sit them down for a gentle chat about how they’re feeling.

Keep an eye on them to see if they start to perk up. If they don’t, or the symptoms get worse, see a doctor as soon as possible. Left unchecked, depression can lead to serious problems such as self-harming, aggression towards others, very low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts.

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