A growing number of children, as young as under-five, are becoming victims of depression – and this trend has grown significantly in the last year as we all try to deal with the fall-out of the pandemic. Some children are even being treated with anti-depressants. How do you spot the signs in your child, and what do you do?
The rate at which children under seven are being diagnosed with depression has been steadily increasing for the last 40 years. It wasn’t so very long ago that it was believed children didn’t have the emotional maturity to become depressed. But we now know that amongst adults with long-term mental health problems, half experience their first symptoms before the age of 14.
While the causes of depression remain unclear, many factors can contribute, such as losing a loved one, illness, stress, family problems and problems at school, such as bullying. Genetics and family tendencies can also explain why some children are more susceptible to depression.
Children who are brought up to believe that they have a say in developing their own personality and interests may be less likely to become depressed than those who believe that they must simply follow parental instructions.
The role of parents
Many researchers now believe that depression in children can be
brought about when overprotective and overbearing parents provide a home
environment where children are ‘micro-managed’ leaving them little or
no control over their lives. Children who are brought up to believe that
they have a say in developing their own personality and interests may
be less likely to become depressed than those who believe that they must
simply follow parental instructions. Sadly, many parents feel they have
had to curb their children’s freedoms in the last decade or so.
Practices commonly accepted as little as 20 years ago are no longer an
option for many parents. Letting children walk to school alone, for
instance, is simply no longer safe or acceptable.
Depression in children usually results from a combination of factors,
including physical health, life events and genetics. Parents are
rarely directly responsible, but they can take steps to reduce the
likelihood of their child developing depression.
The first seven years of a child's life sets the baseline for his
emotional stability in the future. This is why the parent-child
attachment is most important at that point. Infants learn about the
world through their attachment to their caregiver. If the caregiver is
depressed, or not responsive enough, it may lead to difficulties in
Children who have parents suffering from depression usually develop
their first emotional problems much earlier than children whose parents
do not. If you have a problem, seek help for yourself. It isn’t your
fault if your child also develops depression, but taking care of your
own health will surely help protect your child.
Before labeling your child as depressed, remind yourself that
sometimes children are just getting to grips with their own physical and
mental development, and tend to act out emotionally to express
themselves. Taking a child to see a psychologist when it isn’t needed
may give them the idea that there is something wrong with them when
there isn’t, so don’t jump in until you are sure it’s the right course
How to spot depression in your child
These symptoms need to be persistent to indicate depression, so
observe your child’s behaviour for a few weeks before approaching a
mental health professional. Ask your child’s teacher if she has spotted
any changes, too.
Persistent sadness and frequent crying spells
Loss of appetite
Giving away possessions
Drawing only morbid pictures
Deterioration in school work
Loss of interest in friends and social activities
It’s important to remember that there is a difference between depression and sadness. Just like adults, children get off days, when they aren’t feeling themselves.
Intervening early, when a child starts struggling to cope, is proven to reduce the likelihood of more severe and entrenched mental health problems later on. So what does treatment involve?
Prior to the 1980s it was rare for children under the age of five to be prescribed psychiatric drugs in the UK. Today, it has become common practice for psychiatrists to prescribe anti-depressants to children as young as five. Some experts believe that doctors may be over prescribing psychiatric drugs to young children. Research shows that the side-effects of anti-depressants include hostility, mood swings and aggression. Many of the long-term effects on children’s development remain unknown.
Whatever their side effects, there’s little doubt that anti-depressants may have a role in treating severely depressed children. But even then medication alone is unlikely to be sufficient and in these cases psychological treatments can be used in conjunction with medication. When this happens, the rate of recovery is usually speeded up, allowing children to come off the medication more quickly.
It’s important to remember that there is a difference between depression and sadness. Just like adults, children get off days, when they aren’t feeling themselves. Be careful not to label your child as depressed without the common signs and symptoms being persistent for at least a few weeks. If the symptoms are persistent and raise concern, seek advice from your GP.
HOW MY SIX-YEAR OLD WAS DIAGNOSED
Florence has never been a loud child, but I noticed her gradually
becoming more withdrawn,’ says her mum Caroline. ‘She stopped playing
with her friends and it became more effort to get her to interact with
me. She just seemed sad all the time and her toys weren’t touched for
weeks. She lost interest in food too.
‘In the end I took her to the doctors, and it became clear that she
was missing her Daddy. We’d divorced seven months previously. They
still spend a lot of time together, but I’d underestimated the impact of
the separation on her. I was so busy trying to cope myself that I
assumed Florence was ok.
‘At first, I thought I was to blame and that it would be better if I
wasn’t involved in Florence’s treatment at all. I’m happy to say that
it was the opposite and it brought us closer together. I gained an
understanding of her condition and realised it wasn’t my fault – or
hers. It was an illness that we could work on together. We are lucky
that her depression was diagnosed early, so there’s a good change it
won’t become entrenched.’