5 Warning Signs of Childhood Depression

a young boy looking serious

Does your child seem persistently hopeless or helpless? Do they lack motivation or interest in hobbies and activities they once enjoyed? Are they isolating from peers, more tired than usual, or experiencing changes in their sleeping or eating patterns?

Every parent knows that children’s moods can shift quickly, especially in the tumultuous adolescent and teen years. But sometimes their behavior signals more than simple mood swings. It may be pointing to a deeper mental health concern such as depression.

It’s not uncommon for depression to be misdiagnosed as a different mood disorder, such as bipolar disorder, or for other conditions, such as ADD/ADHD. Click To Tweet

THE RISE OF CHILDHOOD DEPRESSION

According to a 2019 study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, among children 3-17 years old, 7.1% had current anxiety problems, 7.4% had a current behavioral/conduct problem, and 3.2% had current depression. Youngsters diagnosed with clinical depression were the most likely to have received treatment in the previous year (almost 80%).

However, the pandemic elevated mental health concerns, including major depressive disorder, among our vulnerable youth. A 2020 study noted a significant increase in depression symptoms among children during the period of pandemic-related lockdowns, for example.

Another study in JAMA Network Open cited stats that, by 2021, 41% of U.S. adolescents reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless and demonstrated higher rates of stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, rates of suicidal ideation in adolescents increased from 17% in 2017 to 37% during the pandemic.

Teen girls in particular are suffering from record levels of sadness and suicidality, according to research from 2021. Factors like trauma, puberty-related hormonal changes, social media, substance abuse, and lack of social connectedness—any of which can also affect boys—can contribute to these effects.

5 CHILDHOOD DEPRESSION SYMPTOMS

Do you suspect your child is struggling with their mental health? Keep an eye out for these 5 warning signs of depression:

  1. Mood and attention changes

According to the Child Mind Institute, the most noticeable symptoms of depression relate to changes in mood. You may find that your child is sadder or more irritable than usual. Younger children can be more prone to throwing temper tantrums. Kids can also feel lonely or be more likely to cry.

While adolescent mood changes are normal, it’s important to recognize when your child displays low or irritated moods more often, or even most of the time. You may also notice your child lacks focus or is having more difficulty paying attention.

  1. Loss of interest and/or motivation

Low energy levels, lethargy, tiredness/fatigue, and lack of motivation are just some ways depression can manifest in kids and teens. Perhaps your child has lost interest in activities they previously enjoyed. Or they may withdraw from social activities and isolate.

These symptoms can start to interfere with their social lives and school performance. If you suspect childhood depression, it’s helpful to talk to your child’s teachers and ask if they’ve also noticed any noteworthy changes.

  1. Self-destructive behaviors

Self-harm can include everything from cutting and hair pulling to substance abuse. Other children may gain or lose weight as they engage in overeating or skipping meals.

Meanwhile, teens can show an increase in risk-taking behaviors, such as unprotected sex or reckless driving. They may skip school, drop out of school altogether, or run away from home. And, in cases of childhood and teen depression, tactics like “tough love” and harsh punishments often backfire.

  1. Physical symptoms

We know that mental health conditions can manifest through physical ailments. For example, aches and pains that occur frequently and without a clear cause may point to depression.

Additional physical symptoms can include gastrointestinal issues, sleeping too much or too little (especially when there have been changes in sleep patterns), restlessness, muscle tension, headaches, and more.

  1. Negative thinking patterns

Automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are common in those with depression. As a result, your child can experience feelings of guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, fear, or self-loathing.

For example, children with depression may engage in all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing. They may feel less-than compared to their peers or struggle with maintaining healthy self-esteem. Treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in helping reframe their thoughts.

DIAGNOSING CHILDHOOD DEPRESSION

In both children and adults, many factors can contribute to depression. Stressful societal changes such as the pandemic are widespread issues that affect everyone to varying degrees. But there are also numerous biological factors, from head injuries to toxin exposure, that can trigger signs of depression.

Other youngsters may have a genetic predisposition, with depression present in their family. However, it’s important to note that depression is not a diagnosis, but a symptom. Finding the root cause(s) why they feel depressed is the first step toward healing.

This is especially important for young people, as an incorrect diagnosis can set them up for years—or a lifetime—of ineffective treatment. It’s not uncommon for depression to be misdiagnosed as a different mood disorder, such as bipolar disorder, or for other conditions, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also called attention-deficit disorder (ADD).

The dangers of not treating or improperly treating depression include:

  • Poor school or work performance
  • Compromised interpersonal relationships
  • Substance abuse
  • Increased risk for heart disease
  • Suicide

Also keep in mind that not all depression is the same. At Amen Clinics, neuroimaging with single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) has identified 7 types of depression based on brain activity patterns.

Pure depression, for example, may correlate to persistent sad or negative mood, low self-esteem, and difficulty concentrating. It often results from excessive activity in the deep limbic system.

Other lesser-known depression types include:

  • Cyclic: Associated with extreme mood swings that occur in a cyclical pattern
  • Over-focused: Tendency to worry excessively and get stuck on negative thoughts, actions, or behaviors
  • Unfocused: Trouble paying attention, easily distracted, tired or sluggish, and procrastination
  • Temporal lobe: Associated with extreme irritability, confusion, memory problems, and dark thoughts
  • Mixed anxiety and depression: Among Amen Clinics patients, anxiety and depression co-occur 75% of the time.

Ultimately, brain scans shows that the appropriate treatment for one type may be ineffective or even detrimental when used on another type.

HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD WITH SIGNS OF DEPRESSION

As a parent, you may feel powerless when faced with your child’s mental health struggles. But you can take several steps to help them if you suspect they’re experiencing depression.

First, keep the lines of communication open and ask questions. They may not have the words to express what they’re dealing with, but being familiar with the above symptoms will help you establish if there’s a problem.

When needed, don’t hesitate to seek help. If the telltale signs are persistent (lasting for weeks at a time) and/or interfering with everyday life, it’s important to test for depression and determine which type is affecting your child.

Keep in mind that antidepressant medication should never be considered the only depression treatment option. There are numerous natural depression treatments that can help with depressive symptoms, including changes in diet and getting more exercise.

Therapy or counseling can help, allowing your child to talk through their problems with a mental health professional. And mindfulness and relaxation techniques, such as meditation and breathing exercises, can also be beneficial for those with depression.

OVERCOMING CHILDHOOD DEPRESSION

Too many kids, adolescents, and teens with depression are dismissed or disparaged as lazy, unmotivated, low-performing, difficult, or troublemaking. But when parents and other adults in a child’s life look behind troublesome behavior to determine its root causes, they may find a problem that runs deeper than simple youthful rebellion.

Fortunately, depression in children and adolescents is treatable. An accurate diagnosis, healthy lifestyle habits, and support from caring adults can make a world of difference. In fact, by introducing kids to healthier coping strategies, treatment has the potential to transform childhood depression from life-disrupting to life-enriching.

Depression and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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