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Childhood Depression


Recognizing and helping kids struggling to cope



January 2014

Depression happens – even in young children. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, on any given day about 2 percent of school-aged children and about 8 percent of adolescents meet the criteria for major depression. What's more, one in five teens have experienced depression at some point.

What parents need to know is that depression is not simply a mood. It's not something to wait out. It is a mental Health disorder that can be treated, so long as parents recognize the symptoms and seek help for their child.

Warning signs

Nathan Larson, a clinical psychologist with Children's Resource Group, says depression can present in different ways in different people.

"Frequently parents have difficulty distinguishing typical sadness or the 'blues' from clinical depression, also known as Major Depressive Disorder. The difference is clinical depression lasts for at least two weeks and causes impairment in functioning such as lower grades and problems in relationships with friends, peers or family members," he said.

He notes that depression can come across as irritable mood in children and adolescents. If it is clinical depression, then the sad or irritable mood will come with other symptoms.

Kids with depression may lose interest in and withdraw from friends and activities they typically enjoyed. They can experience a loss of energy and sleep patterns change. Fatigue, significant weight change, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness and an inability to concentrate or make decisions can occur. Recurrent thoughts of death and suicide are also a symptom. Family history of depression or having previous episodes are risk factors, too.

Younger kids with depression often experience unexplained physical pain, according to Ann Lagges, a child psychologist and co-chief of the Mood Disorders Clinic at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. They complain of headaches or stomachaches that don't appear to have a medical cause, yet don't go away. Loss of appetite is also common.

Getting help

Concerned parents should take their child to a psychologist or other qualified mental health provider to get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate plan for treatment. Parents can also seek a medical evaluation by a general physician or psychiatrist to determine if medication is a path that should be pursued.

Once diagnosed, Larson says therapy typically includes strategies focused on helping the individual change the thoughts underlying their feelings of depression and increasing positive behaviors that provide a sense of value or pleasure.

Larson also believes parents should assess a child's overall situation. If there is a specific or ongoing stressor that triggered the depression, such as bullying, then that issue must be resolved or the child's overall problem will remain.

Help at home

There are steps families can take in day-to-day living that may help a child dealing with depression. Danny Waddle, manager of behavior health at St.Vincent Stress Center, tells parents to first be aware of how their own stress impacts the child. Then help by engaging in simple acts like talking with their child and being open to what they have to say. "Really focus on listening versus fixing, which is tough for parents," he said.

Lagges recommends good sleep schedules for kids and says no to lounging in pajamas all day. She also says no skipping school. Nutritious meals and regular exercise are a priority. Keep kids involved in pleasant activities like going to the movies as a family or with friends, and gently nudge the child into going if he or she resists.

She adds that individuals with depression often focus on life's negatives and miss the positives. Parents can remind their child or teen about good things they may be overlooking, like a good grade on a test or having done a nice gesture for someone. "Thinking is incredibly powerful," said Lagges.

While there is no way to eliminate all risk of developing depression, parents are not at a loss. "Good parenting, developing and maintaining positive relationships between peers, family, and community, and obtaining effective mental health care when appropriate can help," Larson said.


Tags: Health, In This Issue, Pediatric Health

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