Many of us never think about the fact that children suffer from depression. However, most children's depression is usually initially misunderstood and either ignored or treated as a discipline problem. If ignored, untreated depression can have lasting effects on a child's life. This is especially sad since childhood depression is a very treatable illness if recognized.
Depression is defined as an illness when the sad feelings interfere with a child's ability to function well or maintain a normal life. Any child can suffer from depression, yet children who experience a loss such as a divorce, a death, a recent move, a close friend moving, or any other loss are at increased risk for depression. Also, children under stress, children with difficult family problems, children with learning disorders, children who have experienced abuse, and children dealing with a chronic medical illness are all also at increased risk. Depression has also been found to run in families.
Since children typically lack the ability to understand what is going on inside them they often feel very alone and unable to tell others how they feel. Many children suffering from depression do not appear depressed unless you look very closely. When you look closely you will often see a child who does not enjoy things like they used to. They may seem more like an angry, frustrated, agitated, or irritable child. They may exhibit a lot of hyper-type energy, or they may be lethargic. They may cling to others most of the time or they may push others away and long to be alone. They may act like they know about everything and are willing to fight about every issue discussed, or they may appear to not care about anything at all. They may appear bored or low in energy and frequently have problems concentrating. Some children will crave large amounts of sugar, caffeine, and/or chocolate to help increase their energy.
A major change in eating or sleeping patterns is also a frequent sign of depression in children and adolescents. Also, young children who were potty trained yet reverting to wetting or soiling may be exhibiting signs of depression. Many depressed children will frequently complain of physical problems such as headaches and stomachaches and may have frequent absences from school. They may also have poor performance with their behaviors and their grades. Some find ways to hurt their own body or destroy their own or other people's property. Some children or adolescents will express thoughts of wishing they were dead. Depressed adolescents are at significantly higher risk of abusing alcohol or drugs, having high-risk sexual behaviors, developing eating disorder type behaviors, or getting in trouble with the law.
Children and adolescents who express the angry side of depression and cause trouble at home or at school may actually be depressed but not know it. Teachers, parents and relatives may see the child as someone who just needs discipline, yet the child or adolescent may actually need more then just discipline. They may be suffering from depression, which manifests itself in the angry, destructive, and/or problematic misbehaviors.
Discipline alone usually will not help the child's situation and in fact sometimes it may increase the problem. Also, simply telling the child they need to act better, change their attitude, snap out of it, cheer up, or get back on track usually does little except decrease your child's self-esteem even more. There are much more effective ways to solve this problem and better your child's and your life at the same time.
If your child, or a child you know, suffers from depression please remember that depression is a real illness and requires professional help. Most children can be helped greatly from child counseling or family counseling. Some children may need medication in addition to child counseling. A trained child therapist can help guide you in meeting your child's needs in this area. Remember, early intervention can turn a potentially difficult problem, that might have life-long consequences, into a short-lived, easily solved problem that brings your family closer together.