Depression in Young Children: A Parent’s Guide
Written by Amy Williams
When watching a group of children play at a local playground, it might seem unlikely that this age group could be prone to depression. However, depression can become a reality for kids of all ages, including young children under the age of six.
Depression is a condition in which there is a loss of pleasure and function in normal, everyday life. Different than the typical emotional changes that kids experience throughout any given day, chronic depression can affect every aspect of a child’s life, including relationships, social interactions, school, and sports. Unfortunately, depression in young children often goes undetected.
Warning Signs of Depression
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Children who are depressed may display signs that are misconstrued; for example, children may be accused of being disobedient, shy, or lazy. Depression in young children has also been misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, or a temporary reaction to increased stress, such as parents getting a divorce.
While difficult to diagnose, depression in young children is not impossible to observe. Because young children are not able to effectively verbalize their depressive symptoms, parents can keep an eye out for the signs of depression. These can include:
● Children who cling to a parent
● Acute separation anxiety
● Refusing to leave home
● Consistent irritability
● Sleep disturbances
● Changes in eating habits
● preoccupied with death
● Perform poorly in school
● Not able to concentrate
Another major sign of depression is the inability to enjoy anything, such as a fun trip to a museum or playtime with friends.
Depression Symptoms in Young Boys vs. Girls
In the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology study in 2009 , scientists observed and analyzed behaviors of children three to five years of age that showed signs of depression, including unexplained physical maladies and extreme shyness.
During the study, scientists discovered marked differences in symptoms based on gender. While boys tended to show more anger and irritability with tendencies to lash out, girls’ symptoms were quieter, and they often displayed consistent sadness.
Helping a Young Child Who is Depressed
Early intervention with young children is essential for effective treatment. If parents are concerned that their young children are exhibiting signs of depression, they can take important steps to get the condition diagnosed.
First, parents need to schedule a visit with their child’s pediatrician. There may be a physical illness or another reason for the signs of depression. A pediatrician will listen to parents’ concerns and rule out other possibilities while children receive full physical evaluations to ensure good health. It’s also a good idea to keep track of factors in a child’s social life; while bullying may not be more prevalent till teen years, it is not absent in these younger years and may be just as affecting.
Once other possible diagnoses have been ruled out, parents can make an appointment with a mental health professional who specializes in working with children. More than half of children diagnosed with depression experience at least one psychological disorder, so it is entirely possible that young children may be diagnosed with depression and another disorder, such as bipolar, oppositional-defiant disorder, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Early detection of depression in young children, while at times difficult to diagnose, is imperative for long-term mental health. It is essential for parents to remember that they are their child’s best advocates, and to not be afraid to research all options when it comes to an accurate diagnosis for depression in young children.
Joan L. Luby, M.D., Marilyn J. Essex, Ph.D., Jeffrey M. Armstrong, M.S., Marjorie H. Klein, Ph.D., Carolyn Aahn-Waxler, Ph.D., Jill P. Sullivan, M.S., and H. Hill Goldsmith, Ph.D. Gender Differences in Emotional Reactivity and AT Risk Preschoolers: Implications for Gender Specific Manifestations of Preschool Depression. The Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. July 2009. 38(4): 525-537.