While all children experiencing family or personal problems exhibit some sadness or change in mood, those sad, helpless or anxious feelings can also be attributed to depression.
Because children have fluctuating emotions and the symptoms of childhood depression differ from those of adult depression, it can be difficult to diagnose childhood depression in its early stages.
Typical Versus Atypical Emotional Development
As children grow and develop, they begin to develop a sense of emotional maturity as they learn to not only recognize their own feelings but to communicate them as well.
This development does not happen overnight. As they grow and become more aware of the world around them, children learn to exhibit emotions, imitate emotions, comprehend emotions and verbalize emotions.
Because little ones experience emotional struggle as they develop, it can often be difficult to differentiate what is normal (or typical) emotional development and what is abnormal (or atypical) emotional development.
Unfortunately, this means that the symptoms of depression in young children are often unrecognized until they become severe and difficult to treat.
Determining whether or not a child has depression involves establishing whether a pattern of emotional functioning (such as emotional reaction or emotional expression) deviates from the norm and results in impairment of functioning.
For example, a child may feel sadness when his or her parents separate and may exhibit this emotion through crying or tantrums. However, when the sadness interferes with eating, sleep, or begins to create a fascination with death, then the symptom is causing impairments in day-to-day life.
Symptoms of Depression in Children
While there’s no concrete list of symptoms that define whether or not a child has depression, these signs or warnings may be indicative that your child needs to visit with his or her health professional.
- Significant changes in eating. Loss of interest in food or effortless weight loss is more common than weight loss.
- Significant changes in sleep. Regular problems with falling asleep or wakening early without being able to go back to sleep.
- Restlessness or lethargy. No motivation to perform day-to-day tasks or inability to sit still. Exhibits feelings of tiredness or listlessness.
- Difficulty concentrating. This may manifest in changes in quality of school work.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt. They may overreact to criticism.
- Recurrent thoughts of death. This may include thoughts or threats of suicide as well as paranoia about the death of others.
- Drastic mood change. Gloomy, sad, unhappy, despairing or hopeless feelings.
- Changes in socialization. Isolates him or herself away from friends. Child might withdraw from friends or activities previously enjoyed.
- Sexual promiscuity. Engages in reckless sexual activity, possibly with multiple partners.
- Delinquency. Begins to uncharacteristically break rules or cause trouble.
- Complains of illness. Experiences headaches and stomachaches when otherwise healthy.
No depressed child experiences all of the above symptoms but even one symptom may be deserving of your attention.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Early diagnosis and treatment by professionals are essential to children who are experiencing depression.
Treatment options for depression in children may involve psychotherapy, medication or, in very extreme cases, hospitalization.
Psychotherapy, or counseling, if the less invasive form of treatment but may be highly successful. Every child is different and each age group may require a different tactic. For example, play therapy is an option for younger children while older kids and teens may benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Medication may be necessary to calm the symptoms in order for therapy to be effective. Close supervision of medication management by a physician is recommended.
Lastly, hospitalization is a last resort for severe cases of depression that are treatment-resistant and/or include suicidal thoughts or tendencies.