Cars may sit on shelves, Barbies may go untouched. Unlike typical kids who like running and bouncing around, a depressed child’s toys may bring little joy. But since we don’t normally associate depression with kids, and because kids can’t express the complicated “down” that they may be feeling, the task is up to parents to spot the signs.
This can be difficult, says Jon Betts, M.D., of Old Harding Pediatrics in Nashville, because kids are constantly changing as they grow.
“Kids go through various developmental stages,” he says. “Their mood, thinking, relationships and sleep patterns, among other things, change.” What CAN a parent look for? Sadness, changes in weight, either up or down, low confidence, declining grades and complaints of aches or pain without true illness or injury, Betts says. And the symptoms will be present on a daily basis for at least two weeks.
“Symptoms of depression can evolve over time, often making it difficult for parents to pick up on signs of the disorder,” says Gary Griffieth, M.D., CEO of Capstone Pediatrics. “In addition to losing interest in activities that once brought them enjoyment, such as playing with friends, their energy level may appear lower than normal, and they may act irritable, hostile or angry,” he adds.
Depression in children often results from a chemical imbalance in the brain which affects how a child feels, thinks and behaves, and how they think about the world around them.
“There’s no question that depression distorts a child’s thinking,” says Griffieth. “While some research shows that chronic depression and stress can actually shrink the brain, we know that from a neurodevelopment standpoint, we can teach children’s brains to think differently, causing the creation of new pathways between neuron neighborhoods,” he adds.
David Fassler, M.D., co-author of Help Me, I’m Sad: Recognizing, Treating and Preventing Childhood and Adolescent Depression, says one of the biggest tip-offs that something is wrong with a child is a parent’s own instincts: If Mom suspects depression, seeing the pediatrician is in order. Betts says to make an attempt to talk to your child first — but it’s not an easy task to talk to a kid who may just shrug and keep his head down.
“This may seem obvious, but good communication with your children cannot be understated,” Betts says. “This is particularly important with older kids and teens, some of whom, because of social media, don’t feel as comfortable with face-to-face communication.”
And parents are very busy these days, too. Amid work obligations and things happening with hectic school schedules, paying attention to one child’s moods is easier said than done.
“Depression in children can be challenging to diagnose, and your pediatrician can help determine whether or not your child has it,” says Betts. “If your child does indeed have depression, your pediatrician is a good resource to help you get plugged in with various resources in the community, such as counselors and therapists, which are generally the first line of treatment for children,” he says.
And what about medications? Many parents are leery of them, having heard horror stories of coming off of them and so forth.
“Most pediatricians are qualified and comfortable prescribing these. If not, they can help make recommendations and referrals to child psychiatrists who can.”
Most importantly, if your child exhibits symptoms lasting two weeks or longer, action needs to be taken. With your doctor, you can chart a course — depression CAN be treated.
(symptoms lasting for two weeks)
• Weight changes
• Low confidence
• Declining grades
• Complaints of pain or injury when there is none