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Depression is not merely an issue for teens and adults; children can also suffer from depression regardless of their age. Sometimes the signs are and cause are obvious; other times there may appear to be no reason for the depression or the signs are not what are typically thought of as symptoms of depression.
Identifying Signs of Depression in Young Children
Children typically express depression in different ways then 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 in order to officially be considered a depressive disorder.
Keep in mind that the following behaviors occur for a number of reasons and may not be related specifically to depression. Depending on the child’s age and family circumstances, these behaviors 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- Withdrawn and quiet – a child who is typically outgoing, talkative, spontaneous and social starts avoiding other children and adults, preferring to be alone.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 absolutely 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 really 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 behavior 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 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 behavior. Include what the child was doing prior to the behavior change, day and time the behavior occurred, the duration of the episode and events that occurred immediately after, or what occurred when the behavior returned to normal. This helps to determine patterns of behavior, as well as noticeable changes to the child’s typical behavior.
Common Causes of Childhood Depression
In addition to medical conditions and chemical imbalances, there are a number of 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 – 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 may experience signs of depression.
- Low self-esteem – 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.
- Past memories – 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.