In order to recognize depression in children, it is important to become aware of the the signs and symptoms to look for. Because children are not as articulate as adults in expressing their emotions, it is unlikely that they will come to us and say "I'm depressed" as an adult might do. In fact, they may not even realize themselves that something is out of the ordinary. Children live in a world controlled by adults and can easily feel powerless over what is happening to them. This puts the responsibility upon us as adults to look for signs of trouble and help children cope.
The warning signs of depression in children fall basically into four different categories: emotional signs, cognitive signs (those involving thinking), physical complaints, and behavioral changes. Not every child who is depressed experiences every symptom.
Emotional Signs of Depression in Children
Typical moods or emotions experienced by children suffering from depression include:
- Sadness - The child may feel despondent and hopeless. They may cry easily. Some children will hide their tears by becoming withdrawn.
- Loss of pleasure or interest - A child who has always enjoyed playing sports, for example, may suddenly decide to not try out for the team this year. They may complain of feeling "bored" or reject an offer to participate in an activity, which they've always enjoyed in the past.
- Anxiety - The child may become anxious, tense, and panicky. The source of their anxiety may well give you a clue to what's causing their depression.
- Turmoil - The child may feel worried and irritable. They may brood or lash out in anger as a result of the distress they are feeling.
Cognitive Signs of Depression in Children
A depressive mood can bring on negative, self-defeating thoughts. These skewed thought processes may help perpetuate the problem because they make the child resistant to words of encouragement or advice. Once the depression lifts, the child will be much more receptive to help. The signs to look for are:
- Difficulty organizing thoughts - People with depression often have problems concentrating or remembering. In children, this may be evidenced by problems in school or an inability to complete tasks.
- Negative view - People with depression may become pessimistic, perceiving themselves, their life, and their world in a very negative light.
- Worthlessness and guilt - Depressed children may obsess over their perceived faults and failures, feel tremendous guilt, and declare themselves worthless.
- Helplessness and hopelessness - Depressed children often believe that there is nothing they can do to relieve their feelings of depression. In particular, a child with dysthymia may perceive that this is "just the way it is" because this is their only experience.
- Feelings of isolation - A child who has been picked on frequently may become very sensitive to slights from his peers.
- Suicidal Thoughts - Thoughts of death are not limited to adults. Children may also wish that they were dead and express these thoughts.
Physical Signs of Depression in Children
Depression is not just an illness of the mind. It causes changes in us physically as well.
- Changes in appetite or weight - Many people with depression find that their appetite either decreases or increases. Children who usually have a healthy appetite may suddenly lose interest in eating. Children may also respond in the opposite way, but eating too much to self-medicate their feelings.
- Sleep disturbances - Children with depression may have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep once they do. They may wake too early or oversleep. They may have trouble staying awake during the day at school.
- Sluggishness -Children with depression often talk, react, and walk slower. They may be less active and playful than usual.
- Agitation - Depressed children may show signs of agitation by fidgeting or not being able to sit still.
Behavioral Signs of Depression in Children
These signs will be the most obvious and easy for your detect.
- Avoidance and withdrawal - Children with depression may avoid everyday or enjoyable activities and responsibilities. They may withdraw from friends and family. The bedroom can become a favorite place to escape and find solitude.
- Clinging and demanding - The depressed child may become more dependent on some relationships and behave with an exaggerated sense of insecurity.
- Activities in excess - A depressed child may appear to be out of control in regard to certain activities. He or she may spend long hours playing a video game or overeat.
- Restlessness - The restlessness brought on by depression may lead to such behaviors as fidgeting, acting up in class, or reckless behavior
- Self-Harm - Depressed individuals may cause themselves physical pain or take excessive risks. Self-injury is one example of such behavior.
If you suspect that a child is depressed, the next step is seeking professional help in obtaining a diagnosis and treatment.