Tom is a School Psychologist that has worked with students from all grade levels, preschool to high school, and in school-based programs for students with general and special education needs. He has experience working on district- and school-wide initiatives for academic and behavioral interventions, conducting standardized and curriculum-based assessments as part of special education evaluations, and collaborating with parents, teachers, and staff to develop individualized student support. Tom enjoys the consultative and team approach to ensuring students in both general and special education are successful in school. Tom is founder of The Aha! House (www.theahahouse.com), which provides education and solutions for parents to school-based questions and concerns.
What is Depression?
Depression is clinically defined in children and adolescents as a period of persisting or irritable mood or loss of interest or pleasure that lasts at least two weeks and is accompanied by other symptoms such as:
- low energy and fatigue
- inappropriate feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
- sleep disturbances (unable to fall asleep or sleeping too much)
- appetite disturbance (eating too much or too little, significant weight gain/loss)
- recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Dysthymic Disorder is a milder but more chronic condition, characterized by a period of depressed or irritable mood that is present for 50% of the time for at least one year and is accompanied by some of the symptoms noted above.
It is important to note that not all signs will be seen in all depressed youth and that they may vary across age. Younger children are more likely to show irritability, uncooperativeness, apathy, and disinterest than adolescents. Teens may exhibit a state of dissatisfaction and hopelessness in regard to life.
It is difficult to determine how prevalent depression is among children as much of the research focuses on adult populations. Clinical depression in younger children appears to be rare. Best estimates indicate that clinical depression occurs in less than 1% of the preschooler population and 1.5% in preadolescent children.
Children may show high levels of distress that may indicate a depressive mood but it often will not meet the criteria for a disorder.
Typical age of onset for depressive disorder is about 11-14 years of age. During this time the rates of depression begin to increase. Overall, about 10.5% of adolescents will experience a major depressive episode. Teenage girls are more than twice as likely as boys to experience such an episode.
A risk factor is an attribute, characteristic or event that increases a person’s risk or susceptibility to a disease or a disorder. Several factors have been identified that put children at risk to develop a depressive disorder. Some of the more common ones include:
- Genetic Predisposition: The exact role and influence of genetics in leading to depressive disorder has not yet been explained. However, research indicates that the offspring of depressed parents are over two times more likely to have a mood disorder suggesting a strong genetic link.
- Maladaptive Parenting and Abuse: Depressed adolescents and children report lower levels of care and warmth, communication and sharing and more tension in relationships with their parents.
- Cognitive Factors: Negative view of one’s self, the world and/or the future has long been theorized to be associated with depressive symptoms. These thoughts are related to low self-esteem and low self-efficacy, as well as an attention and memory bias for negative information.
- Peer Relationships & Social Skill Deficits: Children who report fewer acceptances by peers have higher levels of depressive symptoms. Peer and teacher reports often indicate that depressed children have deficits in social skills and difficulties with interpersonal relationships.
- Life Stress: Stressful events appear to play a substantial role in the development of depression across all ages of youth. Overall, the majority of depressed youth experience a stressful life event within several months prior to the onset of a depressive episode. Particularly potent events include those involving loss, disruption of important friendships/family relationships and romantic breakups. However, the majority of children and adolescents who experience life stress do not become depressed.
As parents there are many ways we can teach our children to be resilient when facing depressive episodes and moods.
- Teach strong social communication skills: Social communication skills help children develop a sense of self, understand what others expect of them, and how to interact with others in a variety of environments and situations. These skills will help foster strong peer relationships.
- Create a positive home environment: A healthy home environment is an important factor for a child’s success. Routine, structure, expectations and consequences along with an open communication and sharing style will help ensure a child feels secure in navigating their peer and social relationships, as well as coping with stressors that are a part of everyday life.
- Embrace Cognitive Behavioral techniques: A recent study indicated that children (ages 7 – 12) who receive cognitive-behavioral techniques from their parents were more likely to recover from their anxiety compared to children who did not receive such feedback. Some of the techniques used in the study included helping children challenge their anxious or overly negative thoughts, gradually learn to face fears and use problem solving methods.
The hallmark of a depressive disorder is the persistence of its symptoms over long periods of time. If your child continues to exhibit symptoms related to depression or talks of hurting themselves, follow up with a child therapist or a medical professional.
Children can display a wide range of intense emotions and feelings as they grow into adolescence. Whether a child is experiencing a depressive mood or meets the criteria for a depressive disorder, parents can help equip their children with tools for success by modeling and teaching strong social communication, positive cognitive habits, and creating a healthy home environment.