Depression in children today is prevalent and parents and families may notice children experiencing additional signs and symptoms. A child who experiences depression may have various symptoms that could include physical, psychological, and emotional components that vary child to child. Therefore, it is imperative for parents and families to be aware of behaviors that may be abnormal for their children.
What Is Depression?
Depression, typically diagnosed as major depressive disorder, is a mental health condition that is classified as a mood disorder. Those with depression often express feeling withdrawn and sad, having low motivation, and experience lack of joy in activities they once enjoyed.
Signs of Depression In Children
Depression symptoms include prolonged emotional dejection, sadness, and withdrawal.1 Less than thirty years ago, depression was seen as a disorder primarily affecting adults, as it was previously believed that children were too developmentally underdeveloped to experience depressive disorders.2 Furthermore, teen depression was often misattributed to normal teenage angst.2
How Common Is Childhood Depression?
Childhood depression is common, however some age groups may be more likely to develop it. Children under 12 are less likely to develop childhood depression, however is it not unheard of in young kids. Children over the age of 12, however, are more likely to develop childhood depression.
Symptoms of Depression In Children
The experiences of children with depression vary based on their experiences, age, and other life factors. The signs and symptoms of depression in children may vary minimally to significantly depending on the child.
Symptoms of depression in children can include:3
- Appetite changes, which can include an increase or decrease in appetite
- Change in affect
- Changes in sleep patterns, including sleeping too much or too little
- Constant feelings of sadness and/or hopelessness
- Decrease in the ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
- Difficulty focusing
- Easily angered or frustrated
- Often fatigued
- Somatic symptoms (e.g., headaches, stomach aches)
- Suicidal thoughts
- Temper tantrums
- Withdrawal from peers and/or family members
Causes & Triggers of Depression In Children
Depression in children can have many causes, including but not limited to:14
- Substance abuse
- Environmental factors such as difficulties in families
- Family history of mental illness
- Physical illness
- Stressful life circumstances (e.g., school, bullying)
Potential Risk Factors For Depression In Children
Potential risk factors, like causes and triggers, vary from one person to the next. Regardless of causes and triggers; however, it is imperative to recognize potential risk factors that may contribute to the depression of children.
Common risk factors of depression in children include:
- Abuse (e.g., physical, emotional, sexual)
- Having an undiagnosed or diagnosed mental health disorder
- Having a lack of meaning and feeling hopeless and/or helpless
- Low self-concept
- Stressful situations (e.g., school, bullying, divorce/separation of parents)
- Childhood trauma (e.g., death of a loved one)
How to Get Help For a Child With Depression
When addressing depression in children, it is imperative to seek professional mental health support for them to thrive. The first step is to visit your child’s pediatrician to assess any physical symptoms to ensure that what your child is experiencing is not a physical or medical illness.
Once your child’s physical causes of the symptoms are addressed, you should seek out mental health services to support your child throughout the process of coping with his/her depression. Many pediatricians can provide contact information for mental health providers that focus on depression in children.
How to Find a Therapist
When looking for a mental health provider for treatment of symptoms that may be related to depression, take your time and seek out someone who has an expertise in diagnosing and treating mental health concerns in children specifically related to depression.
You may research mental health providers with this specialty by using an online therapist directory, getting a list of providers from your insurance company, getting a referral from your family doctor, or getting a recommendation from a colleague, friend, or family member. Your child’s school counselor may also be able to provide a list of mental health resources in your community.
Here are essential considerations when finding a mental health provider to support your child’s mental health:
- Check to see if the therapist is accepting new clients
- Read to ensure that the mental health provider focuses on the specialty areas that are specific to your child’s mental health needs
- Ask if the therapist accepts your insurance plan or offer affordable cash payment options
Treatment of Depression In Children
Knowing how to treat depression requires a combination of medication and individual counseling. The effects of depression vary from child to child, therefore, the treatment plan will vary according to symptoms and needs of the child. Because treatment for depression can be complex, it’s imperative that children suffering from depression get treatment from a professional, experienced mental health provider (e.g., counselor, psychologist, or social worker).
There is not a one size approach to treatment for children experiencing depression. Treatment of depression varies depending upon the severity of the signs and symptoms, individual motivation, and resources available to children experiencing depression.
Also, parents and families must consider that what works for one child may not work for another when it comes to treatment of depression. There can be some trial and error in finding the right combination of treatment methods.
It’s imperative to not force one particular type of treatment if the child is resistant to engage in one type and not the other. Oftentimes, providing psychoeducation about the disorder, symptoms, and treatment can help when explaining the diagnosis to children. However, it’s critically important that children engage in a level of treatment that is necessary given the severity of symptoms.
A common type of depression therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Within CBT for kids and teens, therapists help children explore negative thinking patterns. It’s normally encouraged to identify distortions in thinking that may be causing some of the symptoms related to depression. This type of therapy can also be done in different modalities, such as art therapy for children, allowing them to better express their feelings without language.
Because depressive disorders have different symptoms, the methods of treatment that a mental health provider may suggest will vary.7 However, there are common methods of treatment used to support children suffering from depression. In counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly used to help support children. Medications, including antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are used to help treat depression in collaboration with healthy lifestyle changes to support children.
Approximately 50% of people who suffer from anxiety disorders also may be impacted by depressive disorder.8 There are medications that can help with symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. Parents should consult with their child’s pediatrician or a psychiatrist who specializes in medications for treatment of mental health disorders.
Some of the medications to treat depression are in the category of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.9 SSRIs are recognized as effective medications to aid in relief from mood and anxiety disorders.
Lifestyle Changes to Help With Depression In Children
While lifestyle changes alone are not enough to efficiently treat depression in children, they can be helpful in collaboration with treatment from a mental health provider. The following lifestyle changes may be positive additions to a therapeutic and medical regimen created by a mental health professional.
To combat depression, parents should encourage their children to:
- Eat a balanced diet that consists of healthy foods
- Get at least eight hours of sleep a night
- Identify triggers that may cause stress and find effective ways to address them
- Incorporate physical activities into an everyday routine (e.g., ride bike, walk through the neighborhood, jogging, dancing)
- Practice relaxation techniques (e.g., visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, prayer, meditation, or yoga)
- Practice self-care techniques when feeling sadness (e.g., take a break, go for a walk, ride your bike)
While these lifestyle changes may be helpful, mental health treatment is key in addressing symptoms related to depression.
The effectiveness of therapy, medication, and other positive changes will vary based on many factors, including:
- When the first symptoms were noticed
- The severity of the symptoms
- If the onset of the symptoms is new or returning
- Triggers of the symptoms
- Recent major life changes
- Additional medical or mental health concerns
- Family history of mental health diagnoses
With effective treatment, symptoms of depression can improve.
6 Ways to Help Your Child Manage Their Depression Symptoms
By modifying their thoughts and behaviors, children have the ability to make their symptoms of depression better or worse. They may not be able to resolve symptoms completely, but children suffering from depression can improve their overall life.
If you are caring for a child dealing with depression, these six tips can help:
1. Educate Yourself
Becoming familiar with signs and symptoms related to their depression. The condition can be complex and challenging at times to manage. Therefore, becoming familiar with signs, symptoms, and healthy ways to cope are important.
2. Schedule Fun Activities
Leave time for activities that they enjoy. Some of these activities may include but are not limited to spending time with their peers/friends, watching a movie that they enjoy, reading a book, taking a bath, physical activity, and eating their favorite meal are all pleasurable activities that can help children to relax.
3. Stay Physically Healthy
Prioritizing physical health during transitions. If a child is suffering from depression, it is imperative to take measures to ensure that the child has a healthy diet, engages in physical activity, and gets an adequate amount of sleep.
4. Find a Treatment Plan & Stick to it
Seeking out treatment and following the treatment plan provided by your child’s mental health provider. When a child is in treatment, the mental health provider will create a treatment plan. As a parent/guardian of a child suffering from depression, it’s invaluable to participate in this process and follow-through on strategies discussed in treatment.
5. Lean On Support Systems
Encouraging your child to surround him/herself with a great support system. Children with depression should seek out a support system who can support them through their journey.
6. Find Healthy Coping Skills & Avoid Unhealthy Ones
Finding healthy coping skills is key, but avoiding unhealthy coping skills can be even more critical. Unhealthy coping skills are challenging to spot at first because they often appear helpful and effective as they offer quick relief, but in time, they lead to unwanted results.
Prevention of Childhood Depression
Depression of any kind is not totally preventable, but it is important to note that there are lifestyle and health changes that can be made to reduce the chances of developing depression. These include ensuring children have a safe environment where their needs are being met, and that they have limited to no exposure of domestic violence and substance use. Given that depression can be genetic, those with a family history of depression are still at risk for developing depression even if their home environment is safe and stable, so screening should be done regularly.
Statistics On Depression In Children
Anyone can be impacted by depression. One in six children between the ages of two and eight have been diagnosed with a mental health, behavioral health, or developmental disorder.5 Due to these alarming statistics, it’s imperative for parents and families to be aware of changes in children’s behavior and to seek out support when they exhibit behaviors out of their norm.
Consider these statistics on childhood depression:4
- Depression and anxiety are among the most common mental health disorders in children
- About 3% of children ages three to 17 deal with concerns pertaining to depression
- Depression tends to be higher in children ranging from 12 to 17 years old
Final Thoughts On Childhood Depression
If you or someone you know is concerned about symptoms related to depression, seeking professional help from a mental health provider is highly recommended. Licensed professional counselors, social workers, psychologists, or psychiatric medication prescribers are able to determine whether a person is experiencing depression and the best methods of treatment.