If you're a parent of a young kid, you probably spend a significant chunk of your life tending to upset stomachs, fevers, bumps and bruises and scraped knees. And while mental health problems can be harder to detect and treat, they should not be ignored. Kids can get depression just like adults do.
According to the 2011 – 2012 National Survey of Children Health, 1 out of 7 children ages 2 to 8 years had a diagnosed mental, behavioral or developmental disorder. Additionally, information collected from a variety of data sources between 2005 and 2011 showed that 2.1 percent of children ages 3 to 17 years had a current diagnosis of depression — and 3 percent had a current diagnosis of anxiety.
No one thing causes depression in children, licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Kendra Kubala tells SheKnows. "Depression can present for a variety and combination of reasons, including experiences, family history, genetic vulnerabilities and physical ailments," she says.
According to The Whole Child, children who have suffered trauma, experienced loss or have behavioral, learning or anxiety disorders are at a higher risk for depression.
Knowing the most common signs of depression in children is crucial. "Often, children will display signs that mirror those of adults struggling with depression," says Kubala. "These include sadness, social withdrawal, hopelessness and an inability to enjoy previously enjoyable experiences."
In young children, signs of depression may also include:
- Being overly irritable
- Being more reactive than typical to perceived criticism/rejection
- Going through intense/extreme crying spells
- Having difficulty concentrating at school
- Displaying changes in appetite and/or sleep
- Increasing physical complaints
- Showing a reluctance to participate in groups or sports they previously valued and enjoyed
- Increasingly declining social invitations
If your child displays more than one of these signs of depression, don't bury your head in the sand. Depression in children is very real, licensed psychologist Dr. Wyatt Fisher tells SheKnows. "Never underestimate mental illness in a child or dismiss it as nothing to worry about," he says. "Keep close tabs on your child's behaviors, and if they seem depressed, get them evaluated so they can receive treatment."
This is also a time to be honest with yourself. "Remember, you may be part of the reason your child is depressed, so be open to changing your parenting style," warns Fisher.
Kubala recommends normalizing a variety of emotions for yourself and child to help your child develop resilience and hopefulness. "Allowing your child to experience and outwardly express different emotions in a supportive relationship that is comforting and consistent will help them recognize that many feelings come and go," she says. "This has the potential to make a child feel stronger and healthier, having overcome a difficult situation."
It can be difficult — but not impossible — to get a diagnosis of depression for a very young child. "To receive a formal diagnosis, symptoms must present for a specific time frame and certain criteria must be met, which take into account if the observed symptoms are due to bereavement, a medical condition, a traumatic event, etc.," explains Kubala. "Some children may be diagnosed at age 6 or younger, depending on the severity of symptoms."
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, the manual from which psychologists diagnose, includes several diagnoses that children may receive within the spectrum of depressive disorders, including major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia) and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, among others.
Whether you have an official diagnosis or not, there are many books and resources available for a variety of experiences that children may face, which can facilitate a conversation. "Focus on listening rather than lecturing, and offer support to your child in an effort to enter and understand their world," says Kubala. "Reaching out to a professional, licensed therapist while allowing your child to be part of the process can add a layer of support and monitoring for your child."
Just like their bumps, bruises and scrapes, your kid's mental health needs your help too.
The Balanced Mind Parent Network, from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, provides information and support to parents raising children with mood disorders.
If you think your child may be suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for confidential help 24 hours a day.