Can a child have depression?
It’s not something most people think of as an issue in the younger years, but a child with depression is more common than you might realise.
While many adults would remember childhood as a positive and happy time in their life, it remains true that even very young children can experience depression.
A report by the Australian Department of Health says children as young as 4 years old can experience major depressive disorders and other symptoms of poor mental well-being.
The report surveyed parents and carers of children aged 4-17, also asking those aged between 11-17 directly. It found that almost one in seven children aged 4-17 had experienced a mental disorder in the previous year. That’s about 560,000 children.
While those numbers may seem alarming, the good news is that more people are recognising some of the mental health challenges our children face and are providing help. Just over half (56%) of children aged 4-17 had used mental health support services, including community and school support during the past12 months.
Understanding what depression in children is, and how to recognise it, may help parents and carers know when their kids need extra support.
What does childhood depression look like?
Children experience depression in different ways to adults.
While we might expect to see an adult with depression withdraw from their friends and family, young children – who may also do this – can often do the opposite, and may have episodes of being extremely loud, aggressive or disruptive. This can lead to depression being misdiagnosed, as symptoms often overlap with other conditions.
As children get older, signs of depression can change. Depression in adolescents often presents as appetite or weight change, and sleeping issues, whereas adults are more likely to have trouble concentrating and experience a loss of interest in the world around them.
Common signs of depression in children include:
- difficulty sleeping or waking up in the morning
- extreme emotional outbursts
- a lack of enjoyment or pleasure in activities they usually like
- not wanting to go to school or engage with friends.
Knowing more about how to recognise the common signs and symptoms of childhood depression may help parents and carers knows when to reach out for help.
What are the causes of childhood depression?
The reasons for depression in children differ slightly from the common causes of adult depression, says psychologist Rita Princi-Hubbard, who counsels children with depression and their families.
“Depression in children can stem from how safe they feel and their attachment to a primary parent or carer,” says Rita. “Children need to feel safe and loved. They need discipline that teaches them, not simply punishes. Children who don’t feel safe can have diminished confidence and worry they’re not good enough.”
If you think your child may be experiencing depression, think about what may have caused it.
“Illness and medical treatments can bring on depression in children, as they start to worry about their parents’ anxiety. Grief or trauma, learning challenges at school, bullying, not keeping up with school work – these can all cause depression. Gifted children can experience depression if they’re not challenged or feel bored.”
While there are many causes of childhood depression, recognising what they might be can help parents start to identify the challenges their child might be having.
Here are some common causes of depression in children:
- Illness: If a child is experiencing a health issue that stops them from seeing friends or doing activities they enjoy, or if they’re having medical treatment.
- Trauma: Bullying, witnessing an accident or violence, and even a painful medical episode.
- Grief: Losing a loved one can cause children to withdraw, self-isolate or even lash out.
- Genetics: A family history of depression which can lead to higher rates of depression, even in very young children.
The role of parents in childhood depression
Another primary cause of depression in children is learned behaviours at home. If young children see a parent extremely anxious, stressed, worried or not coping, they can mirror those behaviours and start to adopt them.
“Children sync with parents in the way they approach, engage and connect, both to others and the world around them,” says Rita. “If parents aren’t coping, if their love feels conditional, or even if there’s disorganisation at home, this is all transferred to children from birth, but particularly at the formative school years of 4-12 years old.”
Happily, this also works in reverse. Children who feel loved, seen and heard by a parent who is present, affectionate and healthy are less likely to suffer with childhood depression.
“Even if there’s a genetic history of depression in the family, a child living in a safe, nurturing and loving environment, and who has strong attachment to their parents, is less likely to be affected,” says Rita.
What to do if your child is depressed
If you suspect your child may be experiencing depression, it’s important to act quickly. Early intervention leads to better results, and letting symptoms persist can make them harder to treat.
Early intervention may include the following approaches:
- Talking to your child. Ask your child how they’re doing and if they’re feeling sad or worried about anything. Having open communication is essential to letting your child know you’ve noticed something is wrong and you want to help.
- Talking to your child’s teacher. Kids spend a lot of time at school and your child’s teacher may have seen something that could help you figure out what’s going on. The same goes for other parents at the school, who may have had feedback from their own children.
- Doing some research. Check out online resources to learn about childhood depression. Your local library should be able to recommend books for children that explain big feelings in language they will understand.
- Asking for help. If a child is depressed, the whole family can be affected. Talk to your GP about local services that can help support you and your child, and the treatment options that may be suitable.
- Practising self-care. You can’t help your child if you’re not caring for yourself. Talk to a friend or counsellor about what’s happening. Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet, exercise, sleep well and avoid drugs and alcohol.
Seeking help for a child with depression and their families
If you’re concerned about your child’s mental wellbeing, we have useful tools and resources for the whole family.
HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central*, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4-11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations.
There is also a range of mental health support, such as online video support with PSYCH2U for eligible HCF members^ and online courses through This Way Up+, a not-for-profit initiative developed by experienced psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, to help you take control of your mental wellbeing.
Where to find extra help for kids’ mental health support:
Words by Kerry McCarthy
Updated October 2021
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How to help a child with depression
Here are some ways parents and carers can help a child suffering from depression.
Building confidence in children
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