Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Could My Child Be Depressed? Important Answers

While we often associate depression with the teen years, the recognition and treatment of depression in children is more easily overlooked.

  • She’s a kid—she’ll grow out of it.
  • He’s just moody–don’t make a big thing out of it.
  • It’s just a stage.

According to Dr. Deborah Serani, author of the book, Depression and Your Child, it is only recently that we recognize that children, even babies, experience depression.

Described as Pediatric Depression, evidence suggests that in the United States alone, 4% of pre-school aged children, 5 percent of school-aged children and 11 percent of adolescents meet the criteria for major depression.

Does that mean that we are now going to start diagnosing every sad or moody child?

Absolutely not.

  • One of the first things that Deborah Serani asks parents to consider is the inborn temperament of their own child. A child may be easy, difficult or slow to warm up.
  • A child may love school and hate sleepovers or excel at soccer and become very anxious about homework.
  • Temperament and the expression of feelings do not equate to depression.

Depression is enduring and pervasive suffering that is reflected in different feelings and behaviors depending on the age of the child. Depression does not just go away.

As a psychologist who has worked for many years with children struggling with depression and as someone whose own childhood depression went undiagnosed until it nearly killed her, Deborah Serani wrote this book to inform parents in a way that would empower them to help their children.

Essential to her message is that when a child’s depression is recognized—it can be successfully treated.

What Should Parents Know?

Offered in a voice that is as personal as it is professional and well researched, Deborah Serani addresses the causes, treatments and even the feared stigma of depression. Her style informs as it reduces anxiety.

Some of the highlights of her book include:

Causes of Childhood Depression

  • Depression in children and adults is a function of biology and biography.
  • Biologically people can have a propensity, a genetic, neurochemical makeup, that makes them more vulnerable for depression.
  • According to this biology-biography model, just having this propensity is not enough to trigger depression. The depression is triggered by ongoing, cumulative or sudden stressful or traumatic events.
  • For example, in a family of children who face the unexpected death of a young father, all will suffer the loss; but only one may suffer pediatric depression.

Knowing if a Child is Depressed

It is often difficult for any parent to recognize that their child is depressed. Deborah Serani suggests that parents should ask themselves ten questions related to their child’s behavior: Is your child’s behavior related to a medical situation? Is the child’s behavior age appropriate? Has there been a recent trauma? Does the child’s behavior interfere with age-related tasks? How intense is the behavior–be it crying, irritability, withdrawal etc.? How long have you noticed it? Has it been noticed everywhere– school, home, sports etc.? Do the symptoms remind you of anyone else in the family?  Are you worried about your child? How would you feel if your child was diagnosed with depression?

The Importance of Assessment

  • The proper assessment of a child by an experienced mental health practitioner is necessary but can be anxiety producing for any parent.  Dr. Serani explains what it means to have a thorough diagnostic assessment. An important message shared is that assessment does not equate to a diagnosis of depression and a diagnosis of depression is not a life-long definition of your child. It is a gate to help, prevention and intervention.
  • It is crucial to remember that depression is illness. It is not the result of poor parenting, missed symptoms or a child who is too lazy or not smart enough to make things better!!
  • Parental support by professionals and others whose children have faced depression can be invaluable because a parent’s understanding and reaction will very much color a child’s understanding and recovery.

Treatment Interventions

There are many myths associated with depression. There is a tendency to equate the diagnosis of depression with medication and a fear that once on it–a child will never come off. This book addresses that myth and offers a comprehensive consideration of treatments from Attachment Based Family Therapy (ABFT), Interpersonal therapy (IPT), Play Therapy etc. to use of medication. The use of more than one approach and the constant evaluation of results by parents, professionals, child and school is a crucial ingredient.

Holistic Approaches

  • Personally and professionally, Deborah Serani describes depression as an experience of depletion.
  • She notes that research finds that our moods are greatly affected by what we take in through our senses—the sun streaming into the room, the smell of pizza cooking, the fragrance of flowers, the feel of a soft blanket or cuddly dog, the sound of our favorite music.
  • When depression occurs, the sensory system seems to shut down. Neurochemically, senses become dull. It really is like “ looking through a glass darkly.”
  • Holistic approaches that feed the senses in the right ways can balance neurochemistry, revive neural pathways and bring greater well-being to your child—much less other members of the family.
  • Colorful posters, cooking and tasting different foods, walking and playing outdoors, vitamins, water play, audiobooks, etc. are often invaluable compliments to more conventional approaches.

Handling Stigma

  • As Deborah Serani sees it, parents and children do best when they take on stigma together. Making sense of the way people deal with their own ignorance and fears by pointing fingers at others can be helpful.
  • Role-playing approaches for handling comments, and learning to confront the myths about depression help “ kick stigma to the curb.”
  • One of the most powerful tools that Deborah Serani offers to deal with stigma is a list of over 370 names of famous people in the past and present like Alec Baldwin, Jim Carrey, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, etc., who have dealt with depression.

Children suffer with depression. They need the chance to recover. As Dr. Deborah Serani says, “ They just don’t know where they put their happy.”  They need help finding it.