Depression hurts. But its signs and symptoms differ in children than adults. While adults may show signs of sadness, lack of energy, problems with sleep, or inability to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, because children have difficulties explaining their emotional state, their symptom presentation is very different from that of an adult.
The CDC estimates prevalence rates of depression for children was approximately 3.2% in 2012. The American Medical Association Pediatrics Journal shows that this rate has increased during the pandemic, with estimates ranging as high as 25.2%. So what signs and symptoms should we look for to help children with depression.
Signs and Symptoms
The CDC identifies eight symptoms common to childhood depression. These include:
- Irritability, Sadness, Withdrawn, Easily Bored, or Easily Loses Focus.
- Does not take pleasure in doing activities they once found enjoyable.
- Weight Loss or Weight Gain.
- Lack of Sleep, or Too Much Need for Sleep.
- Loss of focus, Concentration, Ability to Think or Make Decisions.
- Thoughts about our Focus on Death or Suicide.
While these may be similar to adults’ symptoms, they can manifest differently in children than adults. Frequently, children act out on their anger. Because their Emotional Intelligence is limited, they may not effectively express their emotions. Instead, they may hit walls, yell at others, become assaultive amongst siblings, complain of aches and pains, isolate themselves in their rooms, or show attention deficits. When you see these symptoms present, it is time to take action.
A Word of Warning
In this series on childhood depression, we will explore at-home interventions you can do with your children to help them overcome the feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, and sadness that underlie a depressive state. While I craft each intervention to give you activities you can easily do at home with your children, please note that these activities do not take the place of psychological and medical advice. Instead, these activities will be used as in-home relationship-building exercises to build a closer bond with your child. Stay tuned for more interventions to come.
As a practicing psychotherapist with two decades of experience, I have found that a necessary part of treating any form of childhood or adolescent depression includes a great deal of work and effort from the parents and a trusted professional. If you see any of the signs or symptoms noted above, seek and employ professional help. If your child is engaged in self-harming behaviors such as cutting or expressing thoughts of death or suicide, take your child to a local emergency room or call 911. Also, the Suicide Hotline is an invaluable resource to assist you or your child in navigating these difficult times. You can reach them at 1-800-273-8255. Early intervention is the key to saving a youth’s life.
The prevalence of childhood depression and suicide is real. Professional help is needed when a child’s mental health deteriorates to this state. With an effective team approach to help you navigate these rocky waters, you, your child, and the system your family creates will get you back on track to advance confidently in the direction of your individual and familial dreams.
An Intervention of Mindfulness
One of the most prevalent ways to control emotional responses of any kind is through the practice of mindfulness. To be mindful, we begin to understand emotions within their natural context: passing phenomena that help us chart the course of our ship to shore we wish to navigate.
Like a compass is to a ship, our emotions help guide us by warning us when our boat is off course. Sadness welcomes us to go within, make sense of what is there, and take corrective action. Anger warns us that something is awry in our relationship with another. The emotion asks us to consider available ways to bridge the gap. When we are fearful, we need to consider what has us in danger and choose to leave its presence or fight to rectify the safety issue at hand. Either way, emotions (energy in motion) create action tendencies, which positively or negatively affect the life we build on an intrapersonal and interpersonal level.
This exercise is an intervention in childhood mindfulness. We become mindful by becoming aware of the embodied aspect of the emotions present. Awareness allows us to understand our feelings and thought processes as passing phenomena that frequently reciprocate one another at the expense of being present in the moment.
The Happy Tummy
Lie down and place a straw on the tip of your index finger. Have your child do the same. See if they can balance it. Have them take a deep breath in and out, count by 3’s. Inhale and exhale for three counts. Make sure you breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Ensure there is no pause between inhale and exhale, exhale and inhale. This form of continuous breath is called circular breathing.
First, see if they can balance the straw on their index finger with their eyes closed while breathing. If not, that is okay. Have them then lay down and place the straw on their stomach. Repeat the exercise, and see if that is easier for them.
The Happy Tummy is not a pass-or-fail exercise. Even if the straw falls, they are concentrating on their breath. This form of focus effectively gets a child to concentrate on something other than a distracting stimulus. By focusing on a neutral stimulus, a child is developing skills to effectively shift emotions away from that which may be directing them to a more neutral state, effectively becoming mindful of the moment.
I hope you enjoy this exercise and stay tuned for more.
Namaste, my friends. May blessings find you on your journey to advance confidently in the direction of your dreams.