Childhood Depression


What is childhood depression?

Childhood depression is different from the everyday sadness that children display. It is characterised by feelings of sadness that persist over a period of time and may cause interference to social activities, interests, schoolwork and family life. Depression is a common illness; it is estimated that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 8 boys experience depression at some stage of their lives.

What are the symptoms of depression?

  • The symptoms of depression may include:
  • Feelings of sadness that persists for more than two weeks.
  • Sleep disturbance, either sleeping too little or too much
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Changes in appetite, either increased or decreased
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in activities that they previously enjoyed
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Impaired concentration
  • Feeling as though life is not worth living
Older children and adolescents may:
  • Misbehave
  • Feel irritable or misunderstood
  • Consume alcohol or drugs
  • Increase risk taking behaviours
  • Engage in self-harm such as cutting

What causes depression in children and teenagers?

Depression often arises as a result of a combination of factors. Studies have suggested that depression often runs in families, suggesting that there is a strong genetic basis. Other factors such as family conflict, relationship/friendship problems, death of close people or animals, moving house, bullying and poor grades may also play a role.

How is depression treated?

The most effective method of treating depression in children and adolescents is psychological therapy. Psychologists may work with your child to alter negative thinking patterns and help them develop strategies to cope with stressful events. Young children may also benefit from play therapy. Here at the Sydney Cognitive Development Centre we treat children from around the age of 4 with Play Therapy, and start to introduce more cognitive behaviour therapy around the age of 6/7 years old. Please call us to find out more.

Whilst medication for depression is available, it is usually not recommended for younger children as research is variable and inconclusive over its effectiveness in this age group. Adolescents and teenagers may benefit from taking medication in conjunction with seeing a psychologist, but should be monitored closely as some research has shown it is associated with an increased risk of suicide in some individuals.

Tips for parents

Whilst depressed children may be difficult to talk to, it is vital that the child is able to connect with someone that they trust to discuss how they are feeling. Sometimes it may be helpful for a child to talk to adults other than their parents such as another relative (e.g. aunt or grandparent) or teacher.

When you are discussing your child’s feelings with them, it is important to keep these things in mind:

  • Be mindful to really listen to what the child has to say. This means not reacting and saying things such as “that’s silly” or interrupting, even if it is to cheer up or reassure. Let the child say whatever they can and allow them to finish before speaking.
  • Asking questions to help the child express their story may be helpful. However, do not quiz them and importantly avoid ‘why’ questions. The child may not be able to express why it is that they feel sad.
  • Showing them that you understand how they feel can be helpful (e.g. ‘I can see why you would be sad about that’).
  • If your child has difficulty expressing their story, it may be helpful to get them to use other items. For example, using pictures, puppets or songs/books.
  • Be aware that there may be topics that the child is too embarrassed or afraid to bring up. If this is the case, it may be useful to ask questions targeted at these areas (e.g. asking if anyone is hurting them and has told them not to tell anyone. Reassure them that you are there to help and that nothing is too terrible to talk about.
Once you have tried to understand what the child is going through, the following things may be helpful.
  • Let them know that feelings of sadness do get better than there are things that can be done to help them not feel this way. It is also important to let them know that depression happens to a lot of people and that they are not strange or crazy for feeling how they do.
  • Many children are comforted by people showing that they care. Simple gestures such as hugging or cuddling can make the child feel better about what they are going through.
  • Assist the child in making practical steps for change. These may include things such as making new friends, finding activities that the child enjoys, stopping certain activities so that there is less pressure on the child etc. However, these things should be implemented with the child’s involvement so that they feel involved in their recovery process.
  • Help children to figure out what makes them feel worse and what can make them feel better.
  • Children with depression often struggle with self-esteem. Reassure the child of your love for them. Also, notice the things that your child is doing well and give them praise for it.
  • Studies have shown that having a healthy diet and pattern of exercise can help with depression. Encourage your child to eat well and find physical activities that your child enjoys.