What is Childhood Depression?
As a parent, it can be devastating to see a once happy, care-free child become a sullen shadow of his or her former self; a depressed child who has forgotten how to smile and who seems to have lost the contagious joy that comes so naturally to children.
Having slowly become socially withdrawn, depressed children seem to lack the interest in things that used to excite them, and they become increasingly more irritable, tearful and sad. If this is a familiar chain of events, your child may be suffering with depression.
Childhood is often associated with those carefree days before the stress of the responsibilities of life settled on our shoulders. Many people have the misconception that depression only happens to adults, "after all, what do children have to be depressed or worried about?"
Sadly, this is not always the case – children can suffer from depression too. Adults often forget just how stressful life as a child can be. Sometimes, there need not be a circumstantial event to set depression off, and it may simply be triggered by a chemical imbalance.
At other times, trauma or developmental difficulties may result in childhood depression. Either way, the effects of depression during this crucial developmental stage can be threatening to your child’s future and have devastating long-term consequences.
Who Suffers from Childhood Depression? Is there a cure?
While depression is more commonly associated with adults and adolescence, studies have shown that the disorder can affect infants as young as three months old. Approximately 3% of children suffer from depression and this statistic is increasing yearly.
It is important to seek a professional evaluation if you suspect your child may be depressed as effective treatments are available. If left untreated, a depressed child may becomesusceptible to developing disorders such as anxiety or mood disorders in adulthood. Normal development may also be affected - resulting in academic, social and behavioral problems.
Diagnosing Childhood Depression
If you suspect your child is suffering from depression, your first consultation should be with your child’s pediatrician or general practitioner. They will take a detailed history of your child’s symptoms and perform a medical check-up to ensure that no other medical condition is causing the symptoms.
If medical causes are ruled out, ask your doctor to refer you to a child psychologist (especially if your child is very young) or other reputable mental health care practitioner. Here, your child will be evaluated further with the use of specific depression inventories and in-depth interviews with parents, child and, if possible, other informants such as teachers.
Diagnosing childhood depression may be a lengthy process involving more than one session, especially if your child is too young to communicate symptoms accurately. For this reason, diagnosis will only be made after a thorough investigation into your child’s thoughts and feelings.
Rest assured that assessments in children are aimed at their age level and are often fun and game-orientated to ensure that it is not a negative experience.
Symptoms of Childhood Depression
Symptoms of childhood depression are similar to those of depression in adults and adolescents although the way these symptoms are expressed varies depending on the developmental stage of the child.
Children often lack the verbal accuracy or have difficulty identifying specific emotions such as sadness or depressed mood, and they will often act out or become more irritable towards others instead. Below are some of the commonly identified symptoms experienced by depressed children:
Feeling tearful, sad or helpless
- Feeling nervous, tense or anxious
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most activities
- Low self-esteem and feeling worthless
- Irritable mood or bad tempered
- New aggressive behavior or outbursts of anger
- Change in physical activity, either marked by lethargy or hyperactivity
- Fatigue and loss of energy
- Change in appetite or weight
- Sleep disorders, or frequent waking in the night
- Repeated vague physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches without a medical cause
- School refusal or increased number of school days missed
- Difficulty concentrating
- Drop in academic performance
- Social withdrawal or rejection
- Frequent boredom and complaining
- Emotional outbursts
- Suicidal thoughts, or continuous thoughts of death and self-harm
Help for Childhood Depression
Treating childhood depression is very similar to treating depression in adults, although in this case a careful diagnosis is extremely important. It is important to rule out all other possible physical causes of symptoms before deciding to treat for depression. Often times an assessment will include a psychological analysis of the depressed child, as well as interviews with parents, teachers, and anyone else who deals with the child in a relevant way.
Treatment Options for Childhood Depression
Very little is known about the safety and effectiveness of antidepressant medication in children. While they are often prescribed for adults, most practitioners caution against administering them to children as there are no long term studies indicating possible effects on child development. For this reason, most professionals would recommend another form of treatment unless your child is severely depressed or suicidal. However, it is worrying to note that increasing numbers of children are being treated with high schedule antidepressant drugs as a first resort, rather than first exploring the many options available.
Some form of psychotherapy is often recommended as the first line of treatment for depressed children. Explore the different options and ask for a professional opinion if you are unsure of what therapy will best suit your child. Play therapy, interpersonal therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and family therapy have all been shown to be successful in helping children manage depression as well as expose and deal with any possible underlying causes.
Natural Herbal and Homeopathic Remedies
Many herbal and homeopathic remedies have been shown to significantly reduce depression and anxiety and have been extremely beneficial in assisting with depressed mood, without the unwanted side effects. Because depression is often associated with an imbalance in certain neurotransmitters in the brain, especially serotonin, herbal remedies such as Hypericum Perforatum (St. John's Wort) and Passiflora have been widely used as an effective treatment for depression, irritability, anxiety and other disorders associated with a serotonin imbalance. Many herbs also assist with cerebral blood flow to the brain, ensuring adequate circulation and supporting mental health.
A Holistic Approach to Treating Depression
Numerous studies have revealed that a holistic approach that incorporates more than one treatment method as well as a healthy lifestyle is the most effective.
A natural treatment in combination with some form of psychotherapy, a balanced diet (with all the required nutrients), adequate rest and the right amount of exercise would be the optimal treatment plan to ensure natural all-round health of body and mind for your child.