It's normal for your child to have moments of silence but not when it's accompanied by signs of depression.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on January 14, 2019. It has since been updated.
Moody and disinterested, or sleeping too much or perhaps even too little - the signs of depression in children can often be confused with the phase of childhood or adolescence they are in. Parents who juggle multiple responsibilities to meet their commitments at work and home may often miss out on the subtle signs of what is, in fact, a serious mental health issue. But it is important to remember that depression, when ignored, can have a lasting impact especially if the one suffering from it is really young.
Depression is often, mistakenly, only associated with adults. What many fail to realize is that children are just as susceptible to this mental health disorder.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines depression as a "common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working." However, it's not just adults who suffer from depression. Children and teenagers feel depressed as well due to a variety of stressors.
Irina V. Sokolova, Ph.D., Russian Academy of Sciences, while talking about depression in children, says it can be caused by "a combination of genetic vulnerability, suboptimal early developmental experiences, and exposure to stresses."
Sokolova further elaborates that kids often have different responses to varied stressors which can have a lot to do with their personality and the kind of situation that causes it. In most cases, the child becomes more silent, refusing to open up about what's on their mind to their parents. "Symptoms go unnoticed because of a tendency of depression to have an insidious onset in children, and because symptoms may fluctuate in intensity," she adds.
Yes. Depending on how long it lasts, depression can be of two kinds. There's major depression, also known as major depressive disorder, that lasts about two weeks and can also be frequently occurring. The other kind is dysthymia or chronic depression that can last up to two years.
There's a reason why it may be more difficult to spot depression in children. Child psychiatrist Dr. David Fassler said, "The problem, however, is that while clinically depressed adults rarely appear happy, depressed children often appear happy."
However, teens too can get depressed and have similar symptoms as those of children. A study conducted on the prevalence of depression in adolescent students of a public school found that about 5-8% adolescents and 2% of pre-pubertal children are affected by the mental health condition. "The clinical spectrum of the disease can range from simple sadness to a major depressive or bipolar disorder," it states.
It was further found that about 3-9% of teenagers exhibit signs of depression at any given time. By the time they grow out of the phase of adolescence, a shocking 20% of teenagers report a "lifetime prevalence of depression."
There are various causes of depression like family instability, lack of peer interaction, life events, the environment, and even genetics that can play a role.
As Sokolova mentioned, children who are depressed will not open up to their parents. In fact, they may not open up to anyone. But there are ways to tell if they are going through depression by looking out for certain behaviors that they express. You can tell when:
1. They've suddenly dropped or gained a lot of weight
As your child is walking around, you notice that something is different about the way they look. Then you realize that they've either gained weight or lost it. It could be a sign that they are depressed. In a study conducted to find out the link between childhood depression and weight, it was found that children who exhibited emotional disorders had higher BMI percentiles than their non-clinical counterparts. It was also shown that this affects girls more than boys.
2. Their eating habits have changed
Depressed children can be seen having a drastic change in their eating habits. If you see your child either not eating, eating too much or even being too picky about their food, it could be a sign that they're depressed.
Another study was conducted by Duke University School of Medicine on selective eaters and what the underlying cause for it was. The results showed that "both moderate and severe selective eating was associated with significantly elevated symptoms of depression, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety."
3. They sleep excessively or not enough
If you've already seen their weight fluctuate or a change in eating habits, the next sign to keep an eye out is for their sleep patterns. Depressed children either sleep too much or are unable to sleep at all.
A study on Sleep Disturbances in Pediatric Depression mentions that "sleep problems seem to be associated with greater severity of depression as well as more protracted and recurrent episodes, particularly in those who manifest both insomnia and hypersomnia."
4. They don't talk to you much
Children who are not depressed are usually very interested in sharing details about their life with you. They might not say much but they do talk to you. However, if your child is depressed, you'll notice that they don't talk to you much. In fact, they're pulling away from you. They don't want to engage in anything, not just with the family but with their friends too.
5. They're very moody
Children with depression have a lot of mood swings. They can either be extremely withdrawn or they can become aggressive. Due to the negative thoughts, they have about life and about themselves, their moods can change within a few minutes.
If your child exhibits extreme irritability which suddenly turns to sadness and they have an angry outburst, it might be a one-time thing but if this occurs too often, it could be a sign that they are depressed.
6. They've lost interest in everything
The term for having no interest or taking no pleasure in any activities whatsoever is called anhedonia. If you find that your child shows no interest in anything and takes no pleasure in things that used to be pleasurable, it could be a sign that you need to either talk to your child about it or take them to a therapist who can help.
A study which focused on anhedonia in depressed preschoolers took a sample of 156 preschool children between the ages of 3 and 5.6 years. It was found that out of this group, 54 of the preschoolers were depressed and 57% of the depressed group was anhedonic.
7. They're leaving subtle signs of suicide and self-harm
The most deadly sign of depression is when they start having suicidal thoughts. They may not verbalize it but you will be able to see it in the clothes they wear, the type of shows they watch, the types of sites they visit and even what they write either in their schoolwork or in their journals.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), "Thoughts about suicide and suicide attempts are often associated with depression." You might even notice a knife missing in the kitchen or see your child wearing long sleeve clothes. It is important to initiate conversations and let your child know they're safe and can speak freely about what's on their mind.
If you see these signs, it's time to talk to your child and help them or take them to a therapist.