“I’m depressed, Linus. I need an encouraging word to cheer me up.” (Snoopy, Come Home, 1972)
“I feel depressed. I know I should be happy, but I’m not.” (A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965)
“I have deep feelings of depression. What can I do about this?” (Peanuts comic, 1959)
In countless comic strips, TV shows and even movies, we’ve all heard Charlie Brown say things like this. He’s often seen baring his soul at Lucy’s makeshift “psychiatry booth.” Lucy’s response is typically something like this: “Snap out of it, Charlie Brown! Five cents, please.”
We laugh at these moments, of course. The Peanuts comics take place in a kids-only world. The only hint we ever get that adults even exist is when we hear that funny muted trumpet “adult voice” somewhere offscreen. So it’s amusing to see Charlie Brown visiting a “psychiatrist” and talking about depression. After all, those are adult concerns!
Or are they? We might be tempted to think that kids can’t experience depression because they don’t face the same pressures as adults: Bills to pay. Deadlines at work. Relationship conflicts. War, scandal, death and mayhem on the nightly news. The challenges of raising kids!
As moms and dads, we endeavor to shield our children from these stressors for as long as possible. Besides, kids are resilient, right? They usually bounce right back from whatever challenges life throws at them … don’t they?
The stark reality is that children can suffer from depression and its effects every bit as much as adults. Clinical depression involves a persistent and usually disruptive disturbance of mood that often affects other parts of the body. Children are not immune to this, although they may manifest symptoms of depression that are different than adults.
Unlike Charlie Brown, your children, especially if they are younger, aren’t likely to simply announce, “I’m depressed.” If a child is experiencing clinical depression, he or she won’t have the emotional maturity to verbalize it. Rather, you will pick up clear signs through his or her behavior. Focus on the Family’s Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care lists the following signals that your child might be depressed:
- Continued overt sadness or moping, which may be accompanied by frequent episodes of crying.
- A loss of enthusiasm or interest in things that were once favorite activities.
- Increasing withdrawal and isolation from family and friends.
- Poor school performance: plummeting grades, loss of interest in schoolwork and frequent absences.
- Outbursts of anger, arguing, disrespectful comments or blatant hostility toward everyone at home.
- Repeated complaints about being bored or tired.
- Overt acting out: drug or alcohol use, running away, sexual activity, fighting, vandalism or other antisocial activity.
This does not mean, of course, that all negative attitudes and actions are manifestations of depression. But a component of appropriate parental corrective action should be a willingness to entertain this possibility when a child or adolescent displays an unexpected and persistent disturbance in behavior.
Emotional and Physical Symptoms
In addition to the behavioral indicators listed above, there are other emotional and physical signs that your child might be experiencing depression.
Emotional indicators include:
- Relentless introspection – Kids, and especially teens, can be moody and introspective at times. But depression can amplify this natural tendency into something destructive.
- Negative self-concept – Everyone can tend toward self-criticism on occasion. Again, the teenage years can lend themselves to this with a heavier focus on physical appearance. But depression can lead to relentless and exaggerated criticism of not only physical appearance, but also intelligence, competence and general worth.
- Anxiety – Some kids are natural worriers. A certain amount of this is normal and even necessary. But depression-related anxiety can be crippling, interfering with basic day-to-day functioning.
- Hopelessness – Kids can be especially susceptible to feelings of hopelessness because they lack the experience and maturity to recognize the ebb and flow of good times and bad times throughout life. As an adult, you may be tempted to roll your eyes when your child feels like math is an insurmountable obstacle, or when your teen feels like the breakup of a dating relationship is “the end of the world.” But try to look at it through their eyes and from their experience.
Physical indicators might include:
- Insomnia and other sleep disturbances – Sleep issues aren’t a guarantee that your child is depressed, but depression is almost guaranteed to include nights of fitful sleep. In fact, a return to normal sleeping patterns is usually a hopeful sign that depression is improving.
- Appetite changes – Loss of appetite, weight loss and nonstop hunger can all be signs of depression.
- Physiological problems – Fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, poor concentration and unexplained body pain can all be indicators of depression. Of course, these could all point to a serious medical condition, as well. In the absence of a serious physical diagnosis, parents should consider the possibility that their child is suffering from depression. The symptoms aren’t just “in your child’s head.” They can be a very real component of depression.
Causes of Depression in Children
Maybe your child is demonstrating some of these symptoms, and you’re convinced he or she is depressed. You’re probably asking, “Why?” How did this happen?” You may also be beating yourself up for being a failure as a parent.
But go easy on yourself. The factors contributing to depression are varied and complex. Some of them lie completely beyond your control, while others may reveal areas in the life of your family where you might be able to make proactive changes. Here are some of the primary factors contributing to depression in children and adolescents:
- Genetics and biochemistry – Depression is often linked to neurotransmitters and brain chemistry. This can sometimes be genetic in origin, which helps explain why depression seems to run in some families.
- Personal and family events – Abuse, neglect and a chaotic family life can obviously result in depression among children. Traumatic experiences in early childhood can also contribute to depression later in life.
- Recent stresses and reversals – Severe or chronic illness, the death of a loved one (or even a pet), divorce, remarriage, a move away from a familiar home, sexual abuse, natural disasters, a painful breakup, bullying and other traumatic experiences can result in reactive depression, which is more prolonged and profound than the normal grieving process.
- Personal and family faith – Obviously, a solid Christian faith can be a hopeful anchor amid life’s storms. But some religious situations involving intense legalism, condemnation and pressure to perform can result in anxiety and depression.
Don’t be like Lucy
By now it should be clear that depression can absolutely impact your kids. It’s something to take seriously. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that in 2016, an estimated 3.1 million adolescents (aged 12-17) had at least one major depressive episode. That’s almost 13 percent of the adolescent population.
If you suspect your child is clinically depressed, don’t take the approach that Lucy takes with Charlie Brown and simply encourage him or her to “Get over it!” Here are some ways to love and support your child if he or she is struggling in this area:
Be alert for signs
Many parents are caught off guard when their child is diagnosed with depression. So keep your eyes open. Don’t obsess over every negative attitude or bad day your child has. But if you start to see patterns or trends that concern you, don’t ignore them, either.
Listen to your child and take his or her concerns seriously
One study revealed that 90 percent of suicidal teens felt like they were not understood by their families. If you suspect there is more going on than typical childhood mood swings or rebellion, don’t respond with indifference or shaming. Get on your child’s level, look him or her in the eye and take time to listen and understand where he or she is coming from.
Get a physician’s evaluation
A doctor will be able to help you rule out physical disorders and clarify whether depression might be contributing to the issues your child is facing.
Find a counselor who shares your values and who specializes in working with young patients. Become involved in the counseling sessions with your child. Family dynamics are often a part of the problem and also the solution when it comes to depression.
Be willing to consider medication
While faith and prayer will be incredibly important anchors for you and your child during this process, it’s not a sign of spiritual weakness or compromise to employ medication. Clinical depression cannot be “prayed away.” Antidepressants can normalize neurotransmitter function and are neither addictive nor an “escape from reality.”
Watch for signs of suicidal behavior
Although it’s difficult to talk about, be aware that clinical depression often increases the risk of suicidality, especially among teens. Understand the issue of teen suicide, and if you have any reason to suspect that your child is actively suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately at 800-273-TALK (8255).
The bottom line is this: You know your child best, and you are in the best position to intervene if you feel he or she is suffering from clinical depression. So be aware, keep your eyes open, be a safe refuge to which your child can turn and, if clinical depression is determined to be part of your family’s journey, know that God has promised to never leave you or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6). Rest assured that He will walk with you every step of the way.