Everyone feels sad or blue once in a while. However, when that sadness turns into despair and persists for weeks and even months, then it becomes a worrisome emotional disorder called depression.
Depression is a syndrome in which an individual feels discouraged, hopeless, miserable, and despondent. Not too many years ago psychiatrists disagreed over whether children could in fact become depressed. Now, however, almost all concede that depression can occur at any age.
Children become depressed for a variety of reasons. Genetic factors play an important role, but having a parent who is depressed is the single most important risk factor for a child becoming depressed. Depressed parents' behavior can be a factor in children's depression, as these parents may be less able to respond appropriately to their children's emotional needs. Children feel less supported and parent-child conflict may be more common. Other highly stressful events, such as physical or sexual abuse or the loss of a family member or close friend, may contribute to children becoming depressed. Less stressful but important events such as family discord, school failure, or difficulty with peers can produce depressive symptoms. Sometimes it is not possible to identify a cause of depression.
In middle childhood most youngsters will not label themselves as depressed. Instead, they might use words like sad, low, down in the dumps, blue, or bored. In many cases they will not even speak of feeling any different from the way they did before.
Thus, as a parent, you need to be sensitive to the signs of childhood depression. A depressed youngster might say she is sad or unhappy. She may say, "No one likes me"; "I'm dumb and stupid"; "I wish I was dead."
A depressed child may spend more time alone in her room and stop playing with her friends. Her grades at school may noticeably decline. She may become more quiet and less talkative than usual, may eat slowly or lose her appetite altogether. She may have trouble falling or staying asleep, become fatigued easily, and, often, stop showing concern about her grooming and dress. She may complain of headaches, stomachaches, or chest pains.
Often a depressed child's symptoms are more subtle than you might expect. For instance, she might make less eye contact than in the past. Her mood and behavior may turn from being good-natured to irritable and angry. She may become harder to get along with, and fights and arguments with siblings and parents might become more of a problem.
If you suspect that your child is depressed, you need to do more than tell her to "cheer up" or "snap out of it." Instead, get her some professional attention—as early as possible. If treatment is delayed or avoided, the child's functioning in everyday life will continue to erode, as will her self-esteem, her schoolwork, and her relationships with friends and family. Also, the longer the depression persists, the more difficult it may be to treat.