Children and young people are not always in the best mood. However, if a child loses interest in playing and shows increased irritability, loss of appetite or insomnia, or frequently complains of stomach pain or headaches, these may be signs of depression. It is important to pay attention to these symptoms and promptly engage the services of a psychologist or therapist.
Children of any age can be affected by depressive disorders. But detecting depression in children and adolescents is often difficult. One reason for that is that children are generally not as good as adults at reporting their feelings. In addition, depression in children expresses itself in different ways.
How do you recognise it?
The symptoms depend on the young person's age and only some of them correspond with the criteria for depression in adults.
- In children of pre-school age, it is particularly important to look at how they are playing, eating and sleeping. Signs to watch out for are a loss of interest in play and physical activity, a reduced or increased appetite, trouble getting to sleep or sleeping through the night, waking early in the morning or nightmares.
- In children of school age, you should also look at how they cope with the demands that are made of them. A sudden deterioration in their school marks, for example, may be an indication of depression. It is also advisable to ask teachers whether they notice anything unusual in children's behaviour, such as a drop in performance or a withdrawal from group activities.
- In adolescents, the symptoms are similar to those in adults. Examples are a lack of self-confidence, low self-esteem, anxiety, apathy, slumps in performance and low mood in the mornings.
- Suicide attempts and talking about suicide are particularly alarming signs of depression.
- Puberty is often associated with fluctuations in mood and physical activity. However, low moods in puberty are not as severe or as sustained as depression and cannot be considered to be an illness.
- If you look at someone's behaviour, it is often hard to differentiate between depression and "normal" sadness. Sadness is the pain associated with loss or separation. You cannot begin to talk in terms of depression until the sadness is still there after an extended period and seriously affecting the child's performance and relationships on a sustained basis.
What can you do?
Ultimately, medical specialists and psychotherapists are the only ones who can make a diagnosis. But, as a parent or carer, you can watch out for the symptoms.
- Don't just tell a child to pull himself or herself together. Seek professional advice. As a parent or carer, turn to your family doctor, who will then be able to give you a referral. Most children and adolescents with depression can be treated successfully.
- In most cases, parents, people to whom the child relates and even teachers are involved in the treatment. You will be given information and advice about the illness. As an adult, it is important that you understand the thoughts and feelings of your child and form realistic expectations.
- Sometimes anti-depressants may also be required. It is particularly important that children and adolescents receive the correct dose.
- Make continued efforts to ensure that children and adolescents remain involved at school and in their social life. Encourage the children to take small steps, and give them positive feedback after even minor successes.
Di Gallo, A., & Weber, M. (2005). Depression im Kindes- und Jugendalter: Wie erkennen, was tun? ("Depression in childhood and adolescence: how do you recognise it and what can you do about it?") Schweizerisches Medizin-Forum, 5, pages 925–930.