Depression in children is a disorder that goes unnoticed. It is forgotten, unknown and confused with other problems. Many think that it is impossible for a child to fall into the grip of depression. “How can children become depressed if they have no responsibilities or worries? When they have everything at their disposal?” Yet there are many children with depression. According to data from recent studies, 1 in 100 children and 1 in 33 teenagers suffer from depression.
The most serious problem is that only 25% of teens and children with depression are diagnosed and treated. This low percentage is a result of adults often minimizing, ignoring or even misdiagnosing it. A common misdiagnosis happens when attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is diagnosed instead of depression.
Depressive symptoms come to light from certain personal vulnerabilities. By this we mean the lack of certain social, emotional or cognitive skills and being in a situation that may require high performance. If we take into account the level of the person, in this case the child, these children may feel that they are unable to respond. They may feel blocked. All this causes a lot of stress and a chain of negative emotions. Examples of these emotions are sadness, lack of meaning or purpose, uselessness, vulnerability, emptiness, or anger.
What are the characteristics of children with depression?
There is a difference between mere sadness and a diagnosed major depressive disorder. Sadness, fear, hostility and anger are normal, adaptive and understandable emotions. Sometimes they are necessary and can be translated into behaviors. For example, fear is the emotion of danger and sadness is the emotion of loss. These feelings are not harmful in themselves. They help us to adapt to the things that happen in our environment. These “negative” emotions help us stay safe when we sense danger, or write a story, our story, where every loss makes sense.
It is important that you know how to distinguish between sadness and possible depression in children. You have to take into account the frequency, intensity and duration of the behaviors. You should also pay attention to the child’s discomfort and how it (if any) interferes with their routine. You should also check if they experience irritability and anger, poor appetite, difficulty sleeping, restlessness, and psychophysiological or motor symptoms.
Anger and irritability are common in children with depression. Grief and grief usually occur in adults. Another symptom that is different in children is restlessness. In the case of adults with depression, motor and mental retardation occur. But children with depression are more likely to be more active (hence the confusion in the diagnosis with ADHD). This difference in symptoms causes depression in children to go unnoticed or be confused with other types of behavioral problems.
The different symptoms of depression
Many children go to the doctor because they don’t feel like doing anything. They are very irritable and angry. In some cases, this translates into physical symptoms (headache, stomachache, vomiting, diarrhea, and so on). The most reliable information we can get about their thoughts and emotions comes from the minors themselves. On the other hand, the adults in their environment will be able to provide more information about observable behaviors and specific moments.
Some factors of frailty include a lack of social skills, the ability to solve problems, social isolation, a negative self-image, interpersonal problems with family members or peers, and dysfunctional attitudes with guilty thoughts. It often happens that the emotional state of children with depression is heightened by “ruminating” certain thoughts. Examples include “Everything is going wrong, I’m a disaster, life isn’t worth living. It’s all my fault.”
The theory of learned helplessness and depression in children
We develop defenseless children. One day they are rewarded and the next day they are punished for the same behavior. Everything is happening around them, but no one explains to them where it comes from. No limits are set. They also don’t learn how to deal with frustration and how to endure it. It is very important that we teach them that to achieve the things we want, we must strive, wait, invest time, work, make mistakes and start over.
This learning process takes place through personal experiences. But if we do everything for our children, these learning experiences will be reduced to their minimal expression. That’s when behavior problems start to appear. Anger outbursts, unstable moods and lack of control are some examples.
The value of our deeds
Different elements (behaviours, objects, people…) have the value that someone gives them. That value also depends on the effort and sacrifice made to realize these values. As we grow up, we learn to make connections between our actions and the consequences they have.
This is something fundamental. Because it gives us a sense of control and allows us to act effectively ourselves. Of course we don’t have everything in our hands. But we can do a lot to direct our lives. If children don’t notice this relationship, they feel helpless. If they don’t learn the possible consequences of their actions or if the outcomes are random or scattered, then they will be completely lost.
In the theories of learned helplessness, it has been shown that perception is the most important. Noticing that what we do affects what we will determine later. For example, if we find that effort is an important part of achieving our goals, then effort will be reflected in our actions. But if a child finds that the results depend entirely on chance, he will assume that actions are futile and unnecessary. He will then become vulnerable.
To prevent depression in children, children need to feel that what they do has expected consequences for themselves and those around them.
Distorted Beliefs in Children with Depression
Dysfunctional beliefs are values on which our self-esteem rests. From a very early age, children develop certain biases in their own beliefs. “If you’re not the first, then you’re a sucker; and if you’re a sucker, you’re worth nothing.” In this way we determine our interpretation of reality and of ourselves.
When a child has placed his own personal value in impossible ideas, sooner or later he is doomed to feel frustrated, despondent, incapable or useless. Because there will always be someone smarter or more handsome. We will always make mistakes. In addition, we will not be able to please everyone.
Children must learn to put things into perspective from an early age. You don’t have to be absolutely perfect or a total disaster. We can’t be 100% all the time. Moreover, we cannot just leave everything aside. Life is not black and white. It is a series of shades of gray.
So there will be times in our lives where we need to reorder our priorities. For example, you will learn during an exam week that it is time to spend more time studying. And at the end of that week it will be okay to enjoy your friends, your family and your surroundings for longer again. So it is important that you learn to prioritize responsibilities and manage your time based on the decisions themselves and their consequences.
Suicide in minors
Depression is one of the leading factors that can lead to suicide. An essential aspect of preventing it is to break down the myths surrounding suicide. 72% of teens and children with depression have suicidal thoughts. In the case of children with depression, these thoughts may exist even if they are not expressed in words. Many children’s wishes are not expressed in words, but through other forms of communication such as games or drawings. It is important that as adults we learn to “read between the lines” what children express.
We will now outline some of the myths that exist about children with depression:
- “Suicide runs in the family.” It is often believed that if a parent or family member has committed suicide, the minor is more likely to take his own life. It is true that they are exposed to an inappropriate mechanism for handling things. But suicide is not determined by heredity. It is very important that you do not hide what happened, whether your wishes or feelings. You should talk to the child and use the language that is appropriate for his age. Use concrete statements that they understand. It is essential that you find solutions to the problems for which the child sees death as a liberating solution.
- “Someone who talks about it a lot never does it. It’s just to get attention.” You should never assume that it is not possible that the child will perform it. It is difficult for the parents to deal with the fact that their child has a desire to end his life. However, you cannot avoid the problem. It is even urgent that you address it. Don’t think it will happen but act like it could.
Suicide can be prevented
- “The decision is irrevocable.” Another mistake is thinking that the child’s suicidal thoughts cannot change. Because the feelings are contradictory. There is a mixture of discontent and fear along with the positive idea of death. That is why it is so important that you are aware of the verbal cues and the signs in the behavior so that you can intervene in time.
- “Wanting suicide is a lifelong thought.” The desires are transient. Most of the time, these people regret it and even feel shame. You need to make time to talk about their emotions and normalize the fact that they have mixed feelings. In life there are very difficult experiences. But we can draw great lessons from those experiences.
- “Talking about suicide leads to the act.” Making suicide taboo can be one of the most damaging mistakes. By talking about the subject we alleviate the discomfort. It allows the person to express themselves. Showing empathy, normalizing and trying to understand are the priorities to find solutions.
- “If you commit suicide, you have a mental disorder.” This is another error that happens often. People think that the person has to suffer from a psychological problem to want to commit suicide. Depression is a risk factor for suicide. There is also a high percentage of impulsive suicides among teenagers with mental disorders.
What can you do for children with depression?
The aim of psychological interventions is to address the risk factors and problem behaviors associated with the child’s depression. The intervention includes the child, his family and his environment. With the teenagers or the children with depression, they work on different skills to deal with things, such as how to solve problems.
Emphasis is placed on learning to process information and how to deal with emotional adversity. We try to change their automatic negative thoughts and their self-evaluations. For they make assessments of themselves and the world that can sustain their current emotional state.
Parents are given guidelines to guide the behavior of their children. Empathetic listening is encouraged. In addition, they encourage ways to manage anger, avoid conflict, communicate messages and feelings effectively, learn to make decisions, resolve conflicts, and change ways of interacting with other family members.
To prevent depression in children, it is essential that unconditional love is always present. Love should never depend on an act or on a specific characteristic of the child. It is good that love is perceived as unconditional, as a bond that can survive any circumstance. In addition, there must be reasonable rules that are applied consistently. Reinforcing appropriate behavior, delaying rewards, intrinsic work motivation, resisting coercion, and building good communication… all of these things are essential.