Can young children really suffer from depression?
The short answer is yes, very definitely, they can. The NHS reports that 4% of children suffer from an emotional disorder such as anxiety or depression. It’s more common in teenagers, but younger children can be affected too.
What causes depression?
There’s no specific cause of depression. It’s often a combination of triggers rather than one single event. These could be:
- a big change at home – divorce, a death, moving house, changing schools
- personal problems – abuse, neglect, a physical illness, poverty, arguing parents
- problems at school – bullying, struggling with schoolwork, exam pressure
- a family history of depression can also be a factor
And, quite simply, if too many things happen at once and a child isn’t well-equipped to handle them, then it’s easy to be overwhelmed and show the symptoms of depression even at a very early age.
Those symptoms can have a devastating effect on a young child. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of them, and to be supportive of your children, if they do need help.
Recognising the warning signs
The trouble is, it’s not always that easy to spot when a child is becoming depressed. Telling the difference between normal ups and downs and the start of an emotional health problem can be tricky – even for the most vigilant Mums and Dads.
The obvious signs? Persistent sadness, tearfulness and irritability that don’t appear to be linked to anything in particular can be early warning signs, as is social withdrawal.
But tiredness, changes in sleep patterns and appetite can be symptoms too, as can complaints about headaches and stomach aches that don’t respond to treatment.
You can see how hard it is to differentiate between childhood aches and pains and everyday niggles, and actual symptoms of a depressed state.
However if your child is struggling at school or has lost interest in things they used to enjoy, or if their ‘niggles’ and their mood is affecting the ability to get on with day-to-day life, then it may be time to look into things a little deeper.
What can I do to help a depressed child?
If you think your child is becoming depressed, talk to them – gently. Don’t push, but do try to carefully find out what’s upsetting them. The chances are, you may not get the answers you’re looking for. But sometimes the right conversation is a real help; choose your time carefully – give your child time and space to talk. Silence can be a good thing.
But then, don’t be afraid to look for help – speak to your GP. Ask teachers to keep an eye on your children in particular, and to let you know if they’ve seen anything you’ve missed.
If symptoms of true depression are caught in the early stages, then Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can really make a difference. Sometimes referred to as ‘talking therapy’, CBT is aimed at helping someone to see things a different way, to solve problems, and to train the brain to think and act differently in the future.
Finally, if a period of depression is linked to a major upheaval, such as a bereavement or divorce, then giving your child an opportunity to talk with a trained counsellor could help. In serious cases, a specialist could prescribe antidepressants, but this isn’t a preferred option – as you can see, there are many steps you can take to help before that happens.
Want more support?
We recommend two well-known organisations whose websites have detailed information about depression in young children and in teenagers:
For parents of young children
For good, general advice on depression in youngsters
For depression at all ages, in teenagers too