Depression is a mental illness which can take many forms; some of the more common types of depression include major depression, dysthymia, reactive depression, adjustment disorder with depressed mood, seasonal affective disorder, and bipolar disorder or manic depression. All of these can affect children and teenagers. It is said that 1 in 33 children can be affected by depression, and that in teenagers that number can be as high as 1 in 8.
Depression and children
Depression in children is now widely recognised and in some instances, infants can be diagnosed with this condition.
Having a child who is struggling with depression or who you suspect may be depressed, can be very worrying – and you may have many unanswered questions:
Is depression the same as having ‘the blues’? Should I seek a formal diagnosis? What treatments are available? Is medication the only way? Am I to blame? Should I ‘wait and see’?
Is my child depressed?
There is a huge difference between clinical depression and a bout of ‘the blues’; all children experience difficult times at some stage: struggles at school, bereavement, bullying and family breakdown, to name but a few. Events like these can cause your child to experience a period of intense sadness and grief – but clinical depression is something quite different.
Depression is a complex psychological and physiological condition which can affect a child in many ways and to varying degrees. Children with depression will likely display a number of the following symptoms:
- Intense feelings of sadness, despair and worthlessness
- Little or no interest in playing with friends
- Significant changes in sleeping or eating patterns
- Constant tiredness and lethargy
- Irritability, fighting and challenging behaviour
- Physical complaints such as stomach pains and headaches
- Inattention and poor concentration
What causes depression?
The causes of depression are not fully understood. We do know that depression is hereditary and is believed to be associated to an imbalance of brain chemicals which help regulate mood. The chances of your child developing depression are much greater if their parents or grandparents have it. This disorder can be triggered by extreme stress, such as the death of a loved one, substance abuse or an illness, although in many cases depression may also develop without any apparent cause or as a ‘reactive depression’ to an event or a series of events.
Many of the families who first come to us are struggling with feelings of guilt, believing that they are to blame for their child’s depression. One of our first tasks is to provide parents with scientifically validated information about depression, how it is caused and how it can be overcome. Helping you as parents to deal with the guilt will enable you focus your time and emotional energy on finding a way forwards for your child and family. It is well documented that the sooner you get help, the less likely it is that the cycle of depression will repeat and the sooner the depression will stop having a hold over your child and your family’s lives.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder or manic-depression is a psychiatric condition defined by periods of extreme, inappropriate or unpredictable mood states. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness that affects the child’s behaviour. This disorder is often associated with a variety of deficits, in particular, difficulty in organising and planning. This disorder can interfere with a child’s functioning in the family, at school and with friends.
In children, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a depressive and a manic episode, especially if cycles are rapid or symptoms of depression and mania occur together. Irritability may progress into severe, seizure-like temper tantrums when the child is told, "no." A bipolar child may kick, bite, hit, and make hateful comments, including threats and curses during tantrums, which may last for hours, a child may destroy property or become increasingly violent.
Symptoms of bipolar disorder in children are often confused with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and although the two conditions are frequently confused, they are very different.
Helping your child with depression
A child with depression may display ‘unhealthy’ behaviours such as withdrawal from social situations, sleep disorders or excessive comfort eating. Your child may receive 'reinforcement' he or she these inappropriate behaviours – e.g. a child who refuses to join in with a party game receives reinforcement in the form of attention and sympathy from another adult. We will work with you to turn this around, teaching your child to access rewards and reinforcement for healthy and appropriate behaviour.
This teaching is done by working to the unique motivations and needs of your child and family and is derived from the science of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), a highly effective way of reducing the symptoms of clinical depression in children.
Many of the families we meet tell us that they have little hope that things will change. Our experience over many years, backed up by scientifically validated research, tells us otherwise. We have seen many children tackle and overcome their battle with depression and reach their potential.