It can be difficult to reconcile that a child might be depressed. Depression is often something we think of as being an ‘adult’ mental health disorder. We can think that it comes later in life when, as adults, life has become more difficult and overwhelming.
But depression is something that is also seen in children and the aim of this blog is to highlight some of the ways you may be able to spot depression and ways that you may be able to support your child. If you are concerned that your child is depressed, please contact your GP in the first instance.
There are a number of charities and organisations that can also help to support you and some of these are signposted at the bottom of this blog.
Just like any mental health disorders, depression has different levels and if we are able to spot the early signs, we may be able to make small changes that can make a difference before it worsens.
- Our primitive brain once used depression in a helpful way. It was there, as are all the primitive responses (anxiety, anger and depression) to ensure our survival.
- Life has changed some what since our cave dwelling days but our primitive brain can still respond with depression as a way of shutting down and keeping us safe. Imagine the cave man days of hunting and gathering: food was scarce and to survive we would want to conserve energy. If there was danger outside the cave (wild animals, other rival tribesmen, or even bad weather; snow and ice) we would not venture out of our cave. We would retreat to the safety of our cave, make our selves warm if we could, and rest until it was safe to venture out for food.
- Unfortunately, our brain can still respond in this way and forgets that modern life can supply most of our needs relatively easily. When the brain perceives the world to be a scary place, it encourages us to retreat into the safety of homes or our beds and to avoid the scary things in life. This is true for adults and it is true for children.
- When children perceive their world to be unsafe, they may be responding by retreating and avoiding the scary things. Sometimes this can been seen as depression (it can also be seen in other behaviours such as anxiety or anger).
What does depression look like in children?
It is a change from their ‘normal’ behaviour. This may include (some but not all) of the following:
- Increased tiredness, lack of energy
- Decreased interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Increased grumpiness, over-reacting emotionally
- Sadness or low-mood that doesn’t lift
- Changes in sleeping; unable to sleep or always wanting to sleep and not wanting to get out of bed
- Changes in eating patterns; not having an appetite or wanting to overeat
- Not wanting to spend time with friends or family
- Finding it more difficult to focus or concentrate
- Feeling less confident and less able to make decisions
As children with other mental health disorders are more likely to be depressed, you may also notice signs of anxiety: there may be evidence of self-harming or suicidal thoughts. You may also notice physical symptoms such as headaches or tummy aches which can be associated with anxiety. They may articulate difficulties at school and these may be as a result of the depression or can be a causal factor for depression.
What are the causes of depression in children?
As we have already mentioned, depression is one of the responses from the primitive brain – it’s purpose is to keep us safe by avoiding dangers (perceived or real). A child who is showing signs of being depressed is likely responding to feeling unsafe in some area of their life. Just as for adults, depression may be the result of a number of issues building up over time or coinciding at the same time so that it is more difficult to cope with these challenges.
Some of the causes of depression in children may be:
- Difficulties at home – this might be picking up at stress and worries at home (in parents’ relationships, money issues, blended families, moving house, etc)
- Difficulties at school – changing school, exams, friendship issues, bullying
- Family history and depression in the home – some children may have a predisposition to being depressed linked with genes or personality type. Similarly, a child who has a tendency to be self-critical may be more likely to develop depression
It is often that the depression is developed when a child is finding it difficult to cope with a number of challenges and it may be that there are ones that you are not aware of that are contributing.
What steps to take if you are concerned your child is depressed?
- Talking to younger children – it can be difficult for young children to tell you how or why they are feeling the way they are but giving opportunities for them to talk about their feelings is helpful. If we name feelings, giving examples of when we feel that way, it can create a safe place for them to explore their feelings and provide them with the language to be able to articulate their feelings. You can begin by noticing the behaviour: “I noticed that you were playing with your cars today and didn’t join your friends on the swings.” Then offer some feelings: “Sometimes I like to do things by myself because I want to be quiet and calm, but sometimes I am feeling sad and that makes it difficult for me to spend time with my friends.” Then be curious: “I wondered if you were enjoying playing by yourself?”
- Talking to teenagers – where young children might not have yet developed their vocabulary and understanding, it can sometimes feel like teenagers just don’t want to talk (especially with parents) but teenagers can also be struggling with understanding their feelings and can feel uncomfortable in talking about them. A top tip with teenagers is letting them know that you are available to talk but also that they can control the conversation by asking what they want from the exchange – do you want me to only listen (don’t offer an opinion), or do you want some advice that you can go away and think about, or do you want me to take some action for you or with you? They might not know the answer at the beginning so you can offer to start by just listening and let them know that they can add in the other options if they want to.
- Take it seriously – whatever they are finding difficult to cope with is a very real issue for them. If they don’t want to talk to you, help them to find another trusted adult they can talk to.
When to seek help?
If you are concerned that your child is showing signs of depression then contact your GP for further advice.
Making small changes
When a child (or an adult) has depression, it can be difficult to see the positive things around us. The amygdala is on high alert and is more sensitive to danger and perceived dangers and the brain begins to notice and focus on the negative.
In this depressed state, the brain is not open to make change – change is scary anytime but when the amygdala is on high alert, change can feel impossible. One small way you can support your child is through helping to plant some positive seeds in the garden of their brain.
What’s been good? We often ask our children how their day has been, but if their primitive brain is spending a large part of the day on high alert they may have missed the good things in their day. When we ask “how was your day?” they will respond from this negative premise. However, by changing the question, we are asking the brain to search out only the good things in their day.
Be prepared to share the good things from your day and model noticing the little things: “I spoke to Grandma today, I really enjoyed hearing about her trip.” “I took the dog for a walk.” “I really enjoyed my ham sandwich at lunch, the bread was really delicious!”
This may be really difficult for your child, but as you ask the question each day, the brain will begin to notice the good things about their day in expectation of your question. The wonderful thing is that our brains don’t know the difference between imagination and reality – so each time your child tells you a good thing about their day, the brain recalls and experiences that good thing again. Recalling good things is one way of increasing serotonin which is one of the feel-good neurotransmitters that helps us to feel happier.
To understand more about the neuroscience of happiness and planting positive seeds you can read our Happiness blog which explains neural pruning and the benefits of developing the 3Ps (Positive Interactions, Positive Action and Positive Thoughts).
Further Support and guidance
Young Minds is a charity which is set up to support children and parents. You can contact them weekdays on their helpline on 0808 802 5544 or through their website www.youngminds.org.uk
NHS Advice for Parents https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/children-and-young-adults/advice-for-parents/
Our Parent Pad page has a number of blogs that offer ways to support young people and covers topics such as exam stress, bullying, eating disorders and can be accessed through our website https://www.theyouthfairy.com/the-parent-pad/
All our Youth Fairies offer free initial consultations and can be contacted through our webpage if you would like to contact us for further support: https://www.theyouthfairy.com/fairies/
Please note that we are Solution Focused therapists and offer support for children and parents but if you feel your child may be depressed, we will always suggest that you also make an appointment with your GP.