LITTLE bodies can hold big feelings. Although children tend to hop from one emotion to the other in quick succession, it's important to keep an eye out for signs of trouble, as children also become depressed and suffer from a range of mental health issues.
“It's normal for children to experience fears and worries, or have brief periods of withdrawal or sadness, especially if there is a major change taking place in their lives or they are going through a developmental phase,” says Jenell Eldridge, a direct support specialist for people who are depressed, schizophrenic or suffer from other forms of mood disorders.
“But when a child becomes uninterested in the things and people they used to cherish, or displays noticeable behaviour change for a long period of time, it might indicate that some intervention needs to take place, as he/she may be becoming depressed.”
Eldridge says that while research into childhood depression is fairly new, statistics are showing that up to six per cent of children are being diagnosed with anxiety or depression globally, and this figure tends to increase with the age of the child.
“While child suicide and suicide attempts are rare, especially in the pre-teens, depressed children who do not receive treatment are more likely to become depressed as adults, and are more at risk for other emotional disorders and addiction,”she says.
She shares some of the changes in children's behaviour that should raise red flags for parents or caregivers as warning signs of childhood depression.
Prolonged feelings of sadness, hopelessness or irritability
“Children can have very dramatic reactions to just about any change in their routine, and they may become sad or irritable after a big move, joining a new class, or a family split,” says Eldgridge.
“This is normal, but when these moods become prolonged beyond a reasonable time frame for that child, then it should be taken as an indication that help is needed.”
Not wanting to play or participate in fun activities
“Children, especially the younger ones, love to play. Even if no other children are around, their imaginations and inanimate objects can keep them entertained,” the counsellor says. “If your child becomes uninterested in play altogether, even with friends and family members, that is not a good sign.”
Eldridge says parents can encourage the child's excitement with toys, books and planned family outings to new places.
Changes in eating habits
The support specialist notes that eating disorders are not unique to adults, and children are also likely to overeat or undereat when they are depressed.
“Sudden food aversions or cravings, or frequent complaints about tummy aches that result in them eating less, may be signs of an eating disorder,”she notes. “While this is more noticeable in children over 12, small children can also suffer from eating disorders, which can have a detrimental impact on their physical development and health.”
Shorter-than-usual attention span
“Children don't have the longest attention spans to begin with, but if you notice that the child loses focus before being able to complete a simple task, often appears to be confused or disoriented, or is staring off into space blankly, then this is another warning sign,” she outlines. “You might notice a decline in the child's academic performance, or they may begin to exhibit disruptive behaviour in school or in quiet settings.”
Self-injury and destructive behaviour
Eldridge cautions that intentional self-destructive behaviour is a serious cause for concern in children. “Whether it's a cry for attention or a deliberate intention to hurt themselves, parents should never take self-destructive behaviour lightly,” she says.
“A child who bangs his or her head against walls, runs or jumps from dangerous places, or deliberately ingests harmful chemicals or too much medicine, is a child who needs immediate attention.”