Psychology

Feeling blue

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?

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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 cognitive development.

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 of action.

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.

  • Irritability
  • Persistent sadness and frequent crying spells
  • Withdrawal
  • Sensitivity
  • Selective mutism
  • Loss of appetite
  • Regular nightmares
  • 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.

Getting treatment

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.

Getting perspective

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.’

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