Why do kids get depressed?
I work as a child psychologist, so obviously I come across quite a number kids struggling with feeling ‘down’ and with low self-esteem. There are common themes to this problem, and common causes. In many cases, there is long-standing genetic predisposition to the disorder (depression ‘runs in the family’) and the child is subsequently more vulnerable to bouts of sadness and being ‘down in the dumps.’ In other situations, there has been loss and strife in the child’s life, and they’re reacting as would mostly anyone. Finally, some kids have both components (heredity and tough environmental situations) that contribute to the problem.
What to do?
You won’t go too far in your research of managing depression before coming to ‘cognitive-behavioral’ interventions, which target cognitive (targeting thoughts) and behavior (changing behavior) to uplift one’s mood. In this respect, there is telltale ‘depressed thinking’ that people who struggle with depression tend to experience, such as “I’m never any good,” “I always do things wrong,” or “it will never change.” Changing those thoughts (especially the ‘nevers’ and ‘always’), making them more realistic and healthy, goes a long way to improve the child’s mood. We also change ‘behavior’ to ensure that kids with depression don’t behave in a way that people with depression tend to behave, e.g. withdraw from friends and family, and avoid activities they formerly enjoyed. Working with a therapist is often helpful, but it clearly takes the entire family, working together with the therapist, to ensure the child thinks in healthier ways, and remains active, engaged, and involved. We also incorporate coaches, teachers, kid’s Pastors, neighbors, relatives, and anyone else who has a close relationship with the child to help in the effort.
Parents often ask about improving their child’s self-esteem, which of course is vital. It’s important to remember that people bolster their self-esteem through accomplishment; it’s no free gift. Kids are no different from adults; they gain a sense of competency and self-confidence by doing and accomplishing something meaningful. This could include catching a fly ball, getting an A or a B on a hard test, making a new friend, finishing a book, or just having fun running around playing outside with friends on a sunny day. Accomplishments such as these give a child a chance to look back and think ‘look what I did today – I’m better than I was yesterday”. Even if a child tries and doesn’t do well (drops the fly ball), at least they tried – they put themselves ‘out there’ and took a risk; that fact needs to be emphasized for them. It’s vital to find your child’s interests and passions, and tap into them.
Sitting on the couch playing video games, or watching TV, just doesn’t cut it in bolstering self-esteem, nor of course does sitting in one’s room texting and isolating.
Of course, it’s also vital that parents provide positive feedback to their child, maintaining the balance between encouraging their child to be the best they can be, while not being critical, demeaning, or overly demanding. For more on this subject, see my prior post ‘the recipe for ruining a perfectly good kid.’
It’s also vital to promote a balanced and healthy diet, daily vitamin, and lots of exercise.
Self-esteem from the inside out
It could be said that, as human beings, we have inherent worth that needs to be respected. However, this concept only gets us so far (have you seen what horrible things of which humans are capable?). I’ve found what’s more impactful is the Spiritual avenue; in that respect, knowing that you’re a child of the King of kings, Creator of the universe, chosen and adopted into His royal family, and ‘the apple of His eye’ is about as self-esteem bolstering as it gets. Moreover, knowing that the King is jealously guarding and protecting you is comforting and empowering. One could argue that nothing else better-answers the question of ‘what is our purpose in life’ and provides a sense of direction and hope.
Where does that leave us?
Kids are prone to become depressed, just like adults. The usual cause is loss, family difficulties, and/or genetics. The remedy is changing dysfunctional thoughts (with the help from a trained therapist), altering unhealthy behaviors, promoting activity and accomplishment, and looking toward spiritual growth (preferably as a family). To help the process along, medication can also be instrumental to speed the recovery process. These steps have an 80% success rate. Not convinced, or if you have questions, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. God bless.
Dr. John Carosso, Psy.D.