When Christie walked into her son’s room on Monday morning, 8-year-old Aiden was awake and staring into space. The little boy who usually greeted her excitedly with a grin, hug, and kiss was becoming increasingly withdrawn. This morning, he hardly touched his breakfast. By afternoon, when his father, Adam, picked him up from summer day camp, the counselor reported that Aiden didn’t want to play with the other children or join group activities.
“She said he cried off and on and was very touchy,” Adam told Christie.
Aiden’s parents didn’t know what to make of their son’s behavior over the next few days. He seemed fine physically, but he had trouble staying asleep, said that no one liked him, and was both whiny and angry.
“Is this normal?” Christie and Adam asked each other. Christie wondered if the family’s recent move might have upset Aiden. Adam thought maybe Aiden was seeking more attention.
Days stretched into weeks and Aiden remained unhappy, whiny, angry, and listless. He lost interest in his twin passions of LEGOs and baseball. He didn’t want to play outside, and made random physical complaints. “My leg hurts. My arm’s broken. I have a headache.”
After Aiden refused to attend a friend’s birthday party, Christie made an appointment with her son’s pediatrician. Both parents described Aiden’s behavior and how frustrating and worrying it was. Dr. O’Neill performed a developmental screening and told them that Aiden showed signs of depression. He referred them to a child psychiatrist.
Adam was shocked. “He’s just a baby!” he blurted out.
“How can a third-grader be depressed?” Christie asked, shaken.
“Depression isn’t only an adult problem,” said Dr. O’Neill. “Identifying it early can make a huge difference.”
Dr. O’Neill then explained the typical symptoms of childhood depression: Lack of joy, abandoning play, self-isolation, saying things are not fun, negative talk (I am stupid, no one likes me, I can’t do things anymore), lack of energy, inability to enjoy their favorite activities, inability to stay focused or participate in child-oriented activities, crying easily, being inconsolable.
After an assessment by a child psychiatrist, Aiden was diagnosed with early-onset depression.
Christie spoke for both parents when she said, “It’s really hard to accept that an 8-year-old can be depressed, but in a way it’s a relief because now we can help Aiden.”
Identifying and intervening with depression
It’s natural for a parent to be upset when their young child is diagnosed with a mental health disorder like depression. We’re used to thinking of depression as something experienced by teenagers and adults. But early-onset depression can be a legitimate diagnosis.
The brains of young children are still developing, and tantrums and mood swings are normal behavior. However, when a child has become unhappy in most aspects of their life, it’s time to look for answers beyond ordinary “growing pains.”
Identifying depression early on can be tricky. Children’s symptoms are different from adults’, and may be easily be dismissed. But parents shouldn’t be afraid to question behavior that seems “off”: early intervention is key to helping change the negative thought patterns that are part of depression.
After diagnosing Aiden with depression, the child psychiatrist suggested that the boy see a therapist. The therapist used play to communicate with Aiden. Play therapy is a way for young children, who often have a hard time explaining their feelings, to communicate.
The child psychiatrist and the therapist also made a number of other suggestions that may be helpful when a child is experiencing signs of depression:
• Seek professional support. It’s natural for a parent to feel embarrassed when their very young child shows signs of problems, but going it alone is not a good idea. Early intervention makes a big difference in helping a child deal with depression. If your child shows signs of being depressed, ask their pediatrician for a developmental screening. In some states, early childhood services through your school district will perform an early childhood mental health screening. A pediatrician or school district may refer your child to a therapist.
• Offer your child tender support. Remind your child that you love them and will always take care of them. Give physical and emotional affirmation any way you can.
• Reframe your child’s negativity and ask for their help in making it better. If your child says for example, “I am bad because I don’t want to play” you can say, “You are not bad for feeling that way. You must need something. What do you want?”
• Set up an environment that encourages success. If transitions are difficult, minimize them the best you can and prepare your child for what is next. Recognize any small accomplishments.
• Never tell your child to snap out of it. Children with depression aren’t being lazy or sad on purpose. Offer them help and work side by side with them as they struggle with their mood challenges. A child who curls up in a ball in the corner, for example, might benefit from you sitting with them, reading or playing a game with them. It’s important to help your child stay engaged in something to help them feel less isolated and alone.