Understanding the root causes and effects of childhood depression

A picture of a depressed child in the wilderness.

Depression in kids


According to the book Growing Up Sad, some time ago doctors thought there was no such thing as childhood depression.

But time and experience have proved otherwise.

Today, the authors assert, childhood depression is recognized and not at all uncommon.

Among its main causes are rejection and mistreatment by parents.

The authors explain:

In some cases the parent has subjected the child to a constant barrage of criticism and humiliation. In other cases there is simply a void in the parent-child relationship: the parent’s love for the child is never expressed. . . . The result is particularly tragic for the children of such parents because to a child—or to a grown-up, for that matter—love is like sunshine and water to a plant.”

Childhood anxiety

A girl who is afraid of the her mother.

“You stupid slowpoke!”

A woman in Japan remembers those words all too well—they were flung at her frequently when she was a small child.

By whom? Schoolchildren? Siblings? No. By her parents.

She recalls: “I used to get depressed because the name-calling cut me deeply.”

A man in the United States remembers that as a child, he felt fearful and anxious whenever his father came home.

He recalls

To this day I can still hear the sound of the tires on the driveway and it goes through me like a chill. My little sister would hide. My father was a perfectionist and constantly browbeat us for not doing a good enough job on all the chores we had to do.”

This man’s sister adds:

I don’t remember either of my parents ever hugging us, kissing us, or saying anything like ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m proud of you.’ And to a child, never hearing ‘I love you’ feels the same as hearing ‘I hate you’—every day of his life.”


Effects of child depression

A child affected by childhood depression.

Some might say that the distress these people suffered as children was minor.

Certainly it is not unusual for children to be on the receiving end of harsh, unkind words and mean treatment.

This is not the stuff of lurid newspaper headlines and sensational tabloid TV shows.

The damage is not visible.

But if parents mistreat their children in such ways day after day, the effects may be devastating nonetheless—and last for a lifetime.

One study examined the parenting practices used on a group of five-year-old children.

Researchers managed to track down many of these children, now in mid-life, to gain insight into the long-term effects of their upbringing.

The study concluded that the children who ended up having the hardest time in life, who lacked emotional well-being, and who had a hard time in marriage, friendships, and even at work, were not necessarily the children of poor parents nor of rich parents nor even of obviously troubled parents.

They were children whose parents were distant and cold and showed little or no affection.

Question and answers about child depression


How prevalent is this problem?


A picture of a young child who is depressed.

A recent study of a thousand children found that by the age of nine, some 10 percent of the children had already experienced a depressive episode.

The impression is that 10 to 15 percent of schoolchildren have mood disorders.

A smaller number suffer from severe depression.


How can you tell if children are severely depressed?

A depressed child who does not want to play with a toy.

One of the key symptoms is that they find no pleasure in anything.

They don’t want to go out and play or be with their friends.

They’re not interested in the family.

You see loss of concentration; they can’t keep their mind even on television programs, much less their homework.

You see a feeling of worthlessness, a personal sense of guilt.

They’ll go around saying they think they’re no good or nobody likes them.

Either they can’t sleep or they oversleep; they lose their appetite or they overeat.

Plus you hear suicidal ideas such as, “I wish I weren’t alive.”

If you see a conglomeration of these symptoms, and it’s lasted for a week or two, then you’re talking about a seriously depressed child.


What are the key triggers of childhood depression?

A child sad about the death of a parent.

When you get down to the specific factors in any given child’s life, the major thing is probably a loss.

While this usually means a parental loss, it could include friends, close relatives, or even a pet.

Second to losses I would put depreciation and rejection.

There are children who are maligned and made to feel they’re small or insignificant by their parents.

At times a child is made a scapegoat.

He is blamed for anything that goes wrong in the family whether he is at fault or not.

Hence, he feels unworthy.

Another factor is a mood disorder in a parent.

Some children who are depressed engage in drug and alcohol abuse or even delinquent behavior.

Why is this?

They’re trying to hide the depression, even from themselves.

Their way of dealing with it often is to stay busy with other things, like stealing cars, taking dope, or drinking.

These are ways of disguising how badly they feel.

In fact, trying to hide their depression is one of the clearest ways that children differ from adults.


How can you tell when it is depression and not a child just misbehaving?

Picture of a misbehaving child.

By talking with these children, getting them to open up, you will often find the depression.

And if the depression is properly treated, their behavior improves.

Though something else was showing up on the surface, the depression was still there underneath all the time.


How can you get a depressed child to open up?

A father talking to his child.

First of all, choose a quiet time and place.

Then ask specific questions like, ‘Is something bothering you?’ ‘Have you been feeling sad or blue?’ ‘Are you upset?’ If there has been a loss, you could ask, depending on the circumstances, ‘Do you miss Grandma as much as I do?’

Give the child a chance to ventilate his feelings.

What can severely depressed children to do?

A father comforting his child.

Tell their parents about it.

This business of detection is a serious one because generally only the children know they’re depressed.

Parents and teachers usually don’t see it.

Adolescents who have gone to their parents and said, “I am depressed, I need help,”  have usually gotten it.


What if severely depression persists in a child?

A depressed child walking on railway tracks as parents look on.

If the depression seems to be debilitating, then it’s not something to be handled at home, any more than is pneumonia.

A debilitating depression must be taken to a professional because there may be a need for medication.

If it’s not a debilitating illness, what can a parent do?

Take an honest look at yourself and your family.

Has there been some serious loss that needs to be talked about and dealt with?

When losses occur, don’t belittle a child’s sadness.

Allow him the freedom to work through his grief.

Give a depressed child special amounts of attention, praise, and emotional support.

Spend extra time with him alone.

Your warm involvement is the best form of treatment.

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