It can be shocking and upsetting for parents to discover that their child may be experiencing symptoms of depression, making it hard to decipher how to best support them.
Many parents may feel responsible or even feel like they have failed their children, however this is not the case. Genetics and other risk factors play a large role in determining a young child’s mental health, but placing blame is not productive for resolving the situation.
Depression is usually made up of a variety of factors; there is usually not just one single cause. Genetics is a major aspect that plays into it, as well as stressful circumstances in life such as a deceased loved one, incarcerated parent, chronic illness, or a long hospital stay. Issues within the home are a contributing factor as well. It is important to note that not all children who experience these circumstances will develop depression or other mental health issues.
It’s common for children to feel sad or even experience hopelessness occasionally, due to their fears and worries throughout life. Fears and worries are unavoidable, as they’re just a part of the human experience.
Throughout a child’s growth, they may experience strong fears at different times based on their developmental phases and advances. For example, toddlers tend to experience separation anxiety while they’re away from their parents, even if they’re safe and well cared for by another trusted adult.
Children often inevitably have fears and worries during their childhood. However, persistent or extreme forms of fear and sadness could indicate a deeper issue, such as childhood depression or anxiety. Depression is not simply just “being sad.” Depression occurs when immense unhappiness and sorrow greatly disrupt a child’s life and potentially even alter their personality temporarily. Even though depression in childhood is hard to think about, it must not be disregarded. If it is ignored, it can never be addressed or improved. Early diagnosis of depression can be very positively impactful in treatment. Having perceptive, loving adults surrounding a child is a key factor in bettering their mental health state.
Symptoms and Signs of Depression in Children
Depression symptoms are unique to each individual and may look different from child to child, which is why it’s so important to be informed of the full scope of possible signs. Being informed of signs and symptoms can allow for an earlier diagnosis. Children as young as five can suffer from clinical depression, and pediatricians are likely to identify it first.
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In order to detect depression in preschool-aged children, it’s important to understand their symptoms so a developmentally appropriate treatment plan can be created and implemented. We’ve compiled some of the most common depression signs below to inform and assist you in navigating through your child’s mental health journey.
1 – Disruption in Sleep Patterns
Changes in your child’s regular sleep patterns could be a potential warning sign of depression. This can manifest in various ways and varies from person to person. Your child may experience an inability to sleep enough or at all, which impacts behavioral regulation as well as performance in school and other areas of their daily life.
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They may be feeling restless or uneasy around bedtime or throughout the night, causing disruptive changes to their usual sleep routines.
Sleeping excessively can also be an indication of mental health issues, especially if it’s not typical behavior for them. Your child may sleep excessively, avoid getting out of bed due to feelings of dread and hopelessness, or they may be feeling too low energy to function without excessive sleep.
2 – Loss of Interest
It’s possible that your child may be experiencing depression if you notice that they’re frequently withdrawing from normal activities that they usually enjoy participating in. This also includes losing interest in spending time with their friends and engaging in regular social activities.
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Children’s interests fluctuate over time, and that’s a normal facet of childhood. However, parents know their children best. If their behavior is “off” from what they normally do, then it deserves at least a conversation with their pediatrician.
3 – Mood Swings
Mood swings are inevitable in childhood, but experiencing ongoing bouts of intense anger, sadness, and emotional turbulence could be a potential sign of childhood depression. You may notice your child being more excessively short-tempered than usual.
Older children may be able to utilize drawing or writing to express their emotions in a healthier manner, which can give parents an inside look at the depth and severity of what they’re experiencing. Younger children may need more verbal interaction to sort through their emotions, as they’re still developing their early literacy skills.
4 – Changes in Academic Performance and Engagement
If your child is struggling with mental health issues, including depression, you might notice changes and differences in their experience at school. They may be getting into trouble more often at school or experiencing negative changes in grades and academic performance. Any behavior at school that is non-normative is worth taking note of and bringing up to the pediatrician once a pattern is forming.
5 – Hopelessness and Escapism
The feeling of hopelessness can cause a person to want to escape their mindset by any means possible. This could manifest as trying to run away from home or seriously discussing running away from home. If your child is willing to discuss this with you, provide them with a safe space to vent and make sure they know that their feelings are okay. Provide them with healthy coping mechanisms and expressive outlets to help them manage their desire to escape.
6 – Lack of Energy
A very common symptom of depression is low energy levels. These symptoms can present themselves like physical or emotional fatigue, lack of motivation in daily life, and difficulty concentrating on simple or usual tasks.
If you’re noticing a major lack of energy combined with other symptoms, it may be time to call the pediatrician.
7 – Changes In Eating Patterns And Desires
If your child is experiencing mental health distress, that may impact their appetite and eating patterns. Some may have a notable loss of appetite, others may use food as a coping mechanism and begin frequent overeating.
8 – Low Self-Esteem and Negative Self-Talk
Your child may speak negatively about themselves or display signs of low self-esteem if they’re struggling with depression. Negative self-talk may be displayed in minor ways, such as, “No one likes me,” or it could take a more severe direction, like talks of death or even suicide. This is more prevalent in older children who can articulate these thoughts better, but young children may also exhibit these signs depending on what they’ve been exposed to or experienced.
This also comes from a lack of confidence which is fueled by mental health issues.
9 – Physical Illness Symptoms
Depression can either create symptoms that don’t have a deeper physical issue, or it can actually trigger a chronic physical health condition based on fluctuating hormones such as cortisol (“the stress hormone.”). Mental health affects your brain, and your brain impacts the rest of your body’s function and feelings.
Psychosomatic symptoms occur when physical symptoms are created or exacerbated by a poor mental state. These physical illness symptoms can consist of headaches, stomach aches, digestive issues, muscle aches, and more.
WHEN TO SEEK OUTSIDE HELP
It’s never too early to ask for help and involve additional resources. Children struggling with mental health issues obviously need assistance and encouragement, but parents also need support while navigating this situation. Even if you or your child is not ready quite yet to begin therapy or other formal treatment methods, it’s still worthwhile to consult your child’s pediatrician throughout the process and keep an open dialogue with them. That way, they can equip you with more helpful knowledge and resources or perhaps even pick up on other signs you may not have been aware of.
You know your child best. When you notice a collection or pattern of mental health symptoms, reach out to your pediatrician or mental health professional.
It is also important to be aware of the risk factors for depression to accurately recognize and administer appropriate treatment to a preschool-aged child going through it. With this knowledge, your child’s mental health and overall development can be optimized as much as possible.
STRATEGIES FOR PARENTS
One of the simplest ways to assist your child in this process is by having an open conversation with them. To ensure the most success in this conversation, minimize or eliminate distractions so they’re able to focus and better articulate their feelings. This will also allow you to have a clear head as you facilitate the discussion. Be sure to gradually ease into this conversation with your child to make them feel most comfortable.
Pick a calm and private place where they feel the safest and most secure. Reassure them that you care about them and the way they feel. Validate their internal conflicts and feelings. Approach them with gentleness, care, and compassion, barring any judgment. This initial conversation or series of ongoing conversations provides fruitful quality time together where you can strengthen your bond with one another. Sometimes, the best “treatment” you can provide in the moment is your presence and love.
Depression feels very isolating and creates profound loneliness. Connections and relationships with others can be so effective in hedging against feelings of isolation and loneliness. Your child will likely need you to help facilitate emotional connection with others, as they’re still learning how to do this in general, whether they’re experiencing mental health symptoms or not.
Talk therapy is one of the primary and most influential treatment options for childhood mental health issues. Antidepressant medication may also be a helpful resource for your child, depending on their pediatrician’s evaluations.
Depression in children is very rare, but it’s important for parents and pediatricians to be aware that it can occur to best help a child who displays potential symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment can make a lasting impact on a child’s overall development.
The most crucial thing for you to do is encourage your child to overcome this struggle rather than ignore it.
Facing this head-on with your child will provide them with the solidarity and support they need to get through it and come out on the other side stronger.
Please remember that this is not your fault. Displaying support to your child when they need it the most will build their trust in you, which will ultimately impact them for the better. Stay informed and aware. With your help, they can overcome it.