|Understanding And Dealing With Depression (ages
6 to 12 yrs. old)
G. Conner, Psy.D, Clinical & Medical Psychologist
Depression is one of the most common psychological/psychiatric
disorders. It affects a person's overall energy, mood, expressions of emotion and
behavior. Depression is commonly referred to as a Mood Disorder. Emotion is what you
are feeling at a given moment. How you feel over a long period of time is your mood.
An estimated 1 out of 10 children have difficulty escaping the
symptoms of depression for long periods of time. The rate of depression is markedly lower
(1%) in children ages 1 to 6 years old. The rate is higher in older children ages 9
to 12 years (12%).
Symptoms and Behaviors Associated with Depression
- Crying, feeling sad, helpless or hopeless
- Feeling discouraged or worthless
- Loss of interest or pleasure in others or most activities
- Fatigue and loss of energy nearly every day
- Bad temper, irritable, easily annoyed
- Fearful, tense, anxious
- Repeated rejection by other children
- Drop in school performance
- Inability to sit still, fidgeting or pacing
- Repeated emotional outbursts, shouting or complaining
- Doesn't talk to other children
- Repeated physical complaints without medical cause (headaches,
stomach aches, aching arm or legs)
- Significant increase or decrease in appetite (not due to appropriate
- Change in sleep habits
Serious And Critical Symptoms
Studies have shown that close
relatives of persons with major depression are more likely to have the disorder than
unrelated persons. A number of biochemical agents, called neurotransmitters, have been
identified that may underlie depression. Medical and health related problems have also
been related to symptoms of depression.
- Suicidal thoughts, feelings or self-harming behavior
- Abuse or prolonged use of alcohol or other drugs
- Symptoms of depression combined with strange or unusual behavior
Biopsychosocial models of depression suggest that a number of
factors may interact or operate singularly as a cause depression.
- Genetic vulnerability (e.g. faulty production, transmission or
reception of neurotransmitters and biochemical agents)
- Developmental events (e.g. early childhood stressors, learned
helplessness, object loss)
- Psychosocial stressors (e.g. adults stressors, grieving)
- Physiological stressors (e.g. medical conditions, disease, viral
- Personality traits (e.g. characteristics that influence reactivity to
Psychosocial models of depression suggest that depression are a
results of problems interacting with the environment. Some of the most common are
- Loss or reduction of reinforcement
- Social skills deficit
- Lack of family cohesion, expressiveness, organization
- Family conflict
- Deficient ability to provide for self-monitoring, self-evaluation and
- Negative views of self, the world and one's future.
- Learned helplessness
- Deficient problem solving skills.
Social models of depression suggest their are certain events tend to
The correct diagnosis of depression
is complicated. There are many alternative diagnostic systems and criteria for depressive
syndromes. Using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders there are four
diagnostic categories involving depression.
- Separation, divorce of parents or even close relatives.
- Death of a loved one; a person or a pet.
- A move from one town, or even one neighborhood, to another.
- Academic, sports or athletic failure.
- An injury or physical illness resulting in hospitalization or
- Loss of customary surroundings, family, or close friends.
- Embarrassment, shame, guilt or loss of "face".
- Failure to live up to personal expectations.
- Repeated physical, emotional or verbal abuse.
- Major Depression. A severe form of depression that may involve
disturbed sleep, appetite, suicidal thinking or self-harming behavior, loss of interest,
problems thinking or concentrating, fatigue or loss of energy, restlessness or lethargy,
and lowered self-esteem.
- Dysthymia. A less severe form of major depression in which
symptoms are less evident and may appear chronic and last more than 2 years.
- Separation anxiety disorder. Depressive symptoms that are
clearly associated with a child's separation from those to whom he or she is attached.
- Adjustment disorder with depressed mood. Depressive symptoms
that emerge as a reaction to an identifiable psychosocial stressor. The reaction is viewed
as maladaptive and the symptoms are considered in excess of what is usually expected.
Common Treatment Approaches
A large number of treatment strategies have been developed for the
treatment of depression. Many of these approaches can be implemented individually, in
groups or family therapy environment. There is considerable evidence to suggest that
interventions which emphasize treatment of the family, and not the "identified
patient", are critical to positive treatment outcome. Peer group approaches have been
found to be effective for children. Play therapy is sometimes appropriate with younger
- Cognitive. Cognitive approaches utilize specific
strategies that are designed to alter negatively based cognitions. Depressed patients are
trained to recognize the connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behavior; to
monitor their negative thoughts; to challenge their negative thoughts with evidence; to
substitute more reality-based interpretations for their usual interpretations; and to
focus on new behaviors outside treatment.
- Behavioral. Behavioral approaches designed to increase
pleasant activities include several components such as self-monitoring of activities and
mood, identifying positively reinforcing activities that are associated with positive
feelings, increasing positive activities, and decreasing negative activities.
- Social Skills. Social skills training consists of teaching
children how to engage in several concrete behaviors with others. Initiating
conversations, responding to others, refusing requests, making requests, etc. Children are
provided with instructions, modeling by an individual or peer group, opportunities for
role playing and feedback. The object of this approach is to provide the child with an
ability to obtain reinforcement from others.
- Self-Control. Self-control approaches are designed to
provide the self-control strategies including self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-
reinforcement. Depressive symptoms are considered to be the result of deficits from one or
more areas and are reflected in attending to negative events, setting unreasonable self-
evaluation criteria for performance, setting unrealistic expectations, providing
insufficient reinforcement, and too much self-punishment.
- Interpersonal. Interpersonal approaches focus on
relationships, social adjustment and mastery of social roles. Treatment usually includes
non-judgmental exploration of feelings, elicitation and active questioning on the part of
the therapist, reflective listening, development of insight, exploration and discussion of
emotionally laden issues, and direct advice.
- Medications. Several class of medications are used with
adult populations. Major types include monoamine oxidase inhibitors (e.g. phenelzine),
tricyclics (e.g. imipramine and amitriptyline) and SSRIs (e.g. Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft,
Serazone, Luvox), but other classes have emerged as well. These drugs are not without side
effects. These drugs have been shown to be 50-70% more effective with adults than placebos
and no other treatment. Very little is know about the safe use of antidepressants with
children. The risks and side effects of medications and the findings that competent
therapy and counseling interventions may be more effective restrict the use of medications
Psychotherapy requires significant commitment where as treatment of
depressive disorders with medication requires less effort. Since normal depression can
improve over time and without therapy, a brief period of medication may not be of benefit.
Psychotherapy can be helpful in cases of normal depression and can help insure the
condition does not become chronic. Antidepressant medications require a substantial period
of time before they take effect and several trials of different medications may be
necessary to find a medication that actually works. Medications alone appear to be helpful
in approximately 50% of the cases. However, the use of medications require a substantial
commitment for period of time up to 9 months. In some cases, a patient can terminate their
medications after 6 to 9 moths without a risk of relapse. Unfortunately there is no way to
know id a person will relapse of not. Side effects are the primary reason why people stop
taking their medications. The side effects of antidepressant medications can vary greatly
and can have a significant or even traumatic impact on self-esteem and quality of life.
Psychotherapy is almost always the first treatment of choice except in cases where
depressive symptoms are so severe or critical that immediate relief is necessary to
restore functioning and to prevent immediate and severe consequences. Medication is
usually the second choice after a comprehensive and competent trial of psychotherapy.
Combined use of medications and psychotherapy at the onset of treatment can confound
evaluation of treatment effectiveness and the observed source of change. It is harder in a
combined medication and therapy approach to tell which approach is or is not helping and
how much it is helping. However, research has found that combined psychotherapy and
medication is often necessary and beneficial. Psychotherapy can be a very effective
alternative to the use of medications.
Psychotherapy, or the psychotherapist, can generally be considered ineffective if a
trial of 3 months has not produced a measurable and noticeable improvement. A decision to
change therapists or to start a medication may be necessary at this point. Several trials
of psychotherapy or medications may be necessary to successfully treat depressive
The prognosis for treatment of depression in children is
good. Positive treatment outcomes are primarily dependent on a correct diagnosis, and
understanding of the etiology, and implementing an appropriate intervention.
Advice To Parents
- Seek immediate advice and consultation from a crisis intervention specialist or
qualified health care professional if there are any of the critical symptoms listed above.
- Seek advice and consultation as soon as possible from a qualified mental health
professional if the symptoms of depression are severe, prolonged, debilitating,
unexplained or unusual.
- Seek medical advice if you suspect health problems or symptoms are not explained and
there has not had a medical evaluation for the child's symptoms.
- Seek consultation regarding alcohol use. Alcohol use by children is never appropriate.
- Evaluate drug use. Drugs that are not medically appropriate or approved by your
physician can contribute to depression.
- Learn more about any medications the child is taking. Ask your physician and pharmacist
about potential interactions and side-effects.
- A normal depression is usually temporary, can come and go, but should diminish over
time. Allow the child space and time
- Maintain a regular and nutritional diet. Avoid meal skipping. A proper diet is a
critical source of energy and the child's ability to cope and recover.
- Maintain a regular sleep cycle. Avoid sleeping or napping during the day if it is
difficult to sleep during regular times. Irregular sleep patterns prolong or worsen
symptoms of depression.
- Stay involved and avoid extended isolation from positive activities and influences.
- Maintain regular or routine physical activity that is appropriate for any existing
- Physical activity can help relieve or manage depression.
- Spend time with the child, be caring, listen well and be understanding.
- Take time on a regular basis to help the child enjoy pleasurable activities and
copyright 2001 to 2001 Michael G. Conner