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Although this is a website dedicated to self help, when we are discussing depression in children and adolescents, you will notice I emphasize you see a professional. You really don't want to mess around with your child's mental health.
Depression among children is different from depression in adults. It is still poorly understood and underesarched.
In these pages, I will link to information about both adolescents (over 12) and children ( under 12). Although they are often lumped together they are two very distinct populations, with unique symptoms and needs.
Once twenty years ago, when I was just beginning to work with depression among children, a mother came in with her child for some help. Sydney, who was eight, appeared withdrawn and quiet. She had circles under her eyes and pale skin and looked sad.
This mother, we’ll call her Kathy, looked overwhelmed. She informed me, through several bouts of tears, that she tried the best she could to be a good mother and she’s not sure what’s happened.
She said her husband worked long hours sometimes, but that they always made time for each other and time for their child Sidney. She insisted there was no abuse, violence or trauma in the house and had been no specific recent stressors. Kathy thought that she had done something to cause her child’s sadness.
Feeling guilty is very common if you are a parent of a child with depression but it isn't your fault.
Kathy told me Sidney was smart and in the past she had been well liked by her peers. Now however, the teachers were calling home to ask what was wrong. They reported Sidney was not really interested in the other children or in her class work. Kathy vacillated between expressing great concern over her child’s sadness, and insisting she is generally okay. She had very mixed emotions and didn’t understand what had gone wrong.
After investigating some more, it was difficult to come up with any stressors or situations which could have triggered Sidney’s sadness. It literally appeared out of nowhere at the beginning of second grade.
In this case Sidney WAS experiencing depression. In fact three years ago, KATHY experienced an episode of depression. It was so severe that her own mother had to come and live with her for three months to help with household duties and with raising Sidney. AS you see in the statistics above, kids with family members who are depressed are much more likely to get depressed themselves.
If you are the parent of a child with depression you may have some of the questions below.
These are some of the questions that Kathy asked.
If you have a child who is depressed it is important for you to know that it is not necessarily your fault. Some children become depressed just because they have a chemistry to be prone to depression. Some do because they have a particular temperament or way of viewing the world. Usually, there are life stressors that contribute, however, that is not always the case. Sometimes stressors can be invisible to everyone but the child, for example, they may be overwhelmed by new academic stress, or peer stress.
In Sidney’s case, it turns out she had developed a fear of abandonment around her mother's own depression. No one had explained her mom's depression to her and she had come to believe that her mother just didn’t want to be her mother during the time she was sick. Often we find it difficult to explain mental illness to children, because in our society it is stigmatized. This had caused her to feel sad and rejected and eventually contributed to her depression. She never verbalized her concerns or feelings to anyone and no one knew she felt this way.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO DO IS GET HELP
Many people don’t know how to deal with depression among children. It's no wonder this is the case, we didn't even believe depression among children could exist until the 90's! Rather than give it a name or call it a mental illness it is easier sometimes for people to pretend everything is ok, or ignore that depression has impacted their family. It is very common that I will see children who are depressed in my therapy office, and find that their father or mother is depressed, but that they don’t even acknowledge or understand their own depression.
The important thing is to reach out for some help. Children and their family can be helped tremendously by a skilled and caring therapist.
Additionally, as with anxiety, we know that when a parent who is experiencing stress and depression gets help THE CHILD GETS BETTER. Taking care of yourself can be the best help for your child. If you have depression, know that getting yourself treatment will help alleviate your child's depression even if your child never gets therapy. As Thich Nhat Hanh says "The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness"and the research bears this out.
What's the difference between sadness and depression among children?
It is normal for a child to become sad if they have experienced something to make them sad. Sadness in and of itself doesn’t indicate depression. In fact, some children who are depressed show mostly anger and irritability. A good way to tell if I child is depressed is to ask if the mood and behavior are interfering in their family, social or school life.
If a child is no longer playing with peers, not doing as well in school, or not interacting in the way they did in the past with their family, then it is time consider it serious.
How do I know when to seek help for my child?
If you are wondering whether to seek help then it is likely you need to. Even if a child is not depressed but experiencing pervasive sadness it is important to consider they may need help processing their feelings or that they may be stuck. Often depression in children that doesn't meet the diagnostic criteria will progress to full blown depression and cross the threshold.
Below are some things to consider when deciding whether seeking help for your child
If any of these things are true than please seek help. Depression is something that a trained therapist can help you and your child with. I hope this has been helpful for you in learning about depression among children.
Depressed parent, depressed child? (2011, 11). Harvard Health Publications.The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Retrieved from http://nclive.org/cgi-bin/nclsm?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1370198587?accountid=13217
Garber, J. (2006). Depression in children and adolescents: Linking risk research and prevention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 31, 104–125.
Gorham, L. S., Jernigan, T., Hudziak, J., & Barch, D. M. (2019). Involvement in Sports, Hippocampal Volume, and Depressive Symptoms in Children. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, 4(5), 484-492. doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2019.01.011
Lawson, W. (2003, 08). The puzzle of obese children and depression. Psychology Today, 36, 20. Retrieved from http://nclive.org/cgi-bin/nclsm?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/214496401?accountid=13217
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This page is about how self-compassion and mindfulness and skills such as forgiveness, kindness and compassion can help us with depression and anxiety.