Depression is not merely an issue for teens and adults; young children can also suffer from depression regardless of their age. Sometimes the signs are and the causes are obvious; other times there may appear to be no reason for the depression or the signs are not what is typically thought of as symptoms of depression.
Identifying Signs of Depression in Young Children
Young children typically express depression in different ways than adults, especially if they are unable to verbally express or identify what is bothering them. However, depending on the child, some symptoms may be identical to those present in adults. Typically, the symptoms must last for a minimum of two consecutive weeks to officially be considered a depressive disorder.
Keep in mind that the following behaviours occur for several reasons and may not be related specifically to depression. Depending on the child’s age and family circumstances, these behaviours may be age-appropriate, related to a medical illness such as a cold or the flu, or part of the child’s natural personality.
Withdrawn and quiet
A child who is typically outgoing, talkative, spontaneous, and social starts avoiding other children and adults, preferring to be alone. He no longer wants to interact with others or communicate unless necessary.
Lack of interest or enjoyment
Activities the child usually enjoys no longer provide entertainment. He is bored all the time, despite having a bedroom full of toys. He shows very little interest in participating in any activity. When he does participate, he appears to be simply going through the motions and not enjoying himself. He may appear to be indifferent.
Agitation and sensitivity
The child is increasingly annoyed by minor things that did not bother him before. He may be overly sensitive and overreact.
Crying and tantrums
Rather than appearing sad as in adult depression, children often have increased tantrums or crying. This is typical behaviour for young children, however, the increase in crying and tantrums usually occurs when it is unwarranted or even inappropriate for the situation (such as at a happy occasion or in response to getting what he wants).
Overeating or under-eating
Due to the child constantly growing, there may not be noticeable signs of weight gain or loss, however, overeating or a flat-out refusal to eat are common. A change in eating patterns alone is not indicative of depression. Children change eating patterns regularly before, during, and after growth spurts as well as during periods of illness or excitement.
Lethargic or hyperactive
A normally hyperactive child suddenly becomes lethargic and inactive, whereas a normally calm and mellow child may become overly hyperactive.
When evaluating and observing the child, it is helpful for parents to keep a log of the child’s behaviour. Include what your child was doing before the behaviour change. The day and time the behaviour occurred, the duration of the episode and events that occurred immediately after, or what occurred when the behaviour returned to normal. This helps to determine patterns of behaviour, as well as noticeable changes to the child’s typical behaviour.
Common Causes of Childhood Depression
In addition to medical conditions and chemical imbalances, there are several reasons why children experience depression. Childhood depression can range anywhere from mild to severe or brief to long-term. Mild and brief depression often goes unnoticed and untreated, whereas severe or long-term depression is more noticeable.
In some cases, the cause of depression is obvious such as when there is a death in the family, a childhood friend moves away, moving to a new school, loss of a close family pet, domestic violence in the home, and physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Many times, the cause of depression in children is less obvious.
Problems at school
The child may be having a conflict with the teacher or daycare provider. Additionally, the child’s schoolwork may be too difficult or beyond the child’s understanding. He might feel he is being bullied on the playground.
Friend issues are a common cause of depression, even among young children who have made close attachments. A close friend who moves away or suddenly starts being mean can cause depression. Additionally, a child who finds it difficult to make friends or find someone to play with my experience signs of depression.
Children with low self-esteem are more susceptible to depression, especially if they are being shunned, teased pr picked on by other children.
Adjustment and transition issues
Moving to a new town, school or home can be a real problem for children. Even minor transitions or adjustments could trigger depression in some children.
Memories of past events may be brought up again if triggered by something that serves as a reminder, even when the issue was successfully dealt with in the past.
As parents, it is important to look at recent events in the child’s life as well as past events. Although they may seem small or insignificant to the parent, the child’s reaction and response may be much different.
Children Coping with Depression
Most children do not understand the concept of depression; they only know how they feel and may not be able to accurately express those feelings. Children often do not know why they are depressed and are unable to determine the cause. When they are asked what is wrong, a typical response is “I don’t know” or “nothing.” Wanting to please their parents or hoping parents will stop asking, children will often try to answer with an inaccurate response. This type of response usually refers to some recent past event and is likely unrelated.
For example, a child who either does not know or does not want to answer might respond to repeated questioning by saying that he is upset because he did not have pizza for dinner that night. When the discussion over that night’s dinner is finished and the child is asked again an hour later what is wrong, he might respond with not wanting to go to bed, not being able to find his favourite toy, or whatever else happens to be on his mind at the time.
It is common for parents to keep asking, trying to determine the cause, and understand the problem. Without knowing the cause, it is difficult to correct the situation and “make things better.” However, whether due to the child’s inability to identify the problem or his lack of wanting to talk about it, determining the cause is not always possible. Consistently questioning the child could make the issues worse and professional counselling may be necessary to determine the cause and help the child overcome depression.