A parent’s guide to recognizing and coping with childhood depression

According to child development experts, it is perfectly normal for children to experience mood fluctuations and occasional bouts of sadness as they grow and learn to process their emotions. However, when young children lack the self-awareness to describe how they’re feeling, how can parents distinguish between normal mood swings and more serious mental health concerns?

Yuliya Kotelnikova, a professor and psychologist in the University of Alberta’s School and Clinical Child Psychology Program, explains that it’s not always easy to determine, as it often depends on a complex network of environmental factors. Parents might misinterpret a child’s behaviour based on their own perceptions and frame of mind at the time, or they might misread outward signs of worry, refusal, and anger as mere attempts to “get something” or “avoid something,” Kotelnikova says.

Yuliya Kotelnikova

Yuliya Kotelnikova

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Parents “might see a child as challenging the rules,” she notes, “when in reality, the child feels helpless and frustrated but lacks the ability to express it verbally.”

While it is normal for children to experience variations in mood, persistent feelings of sadness, loneliness, irritability, or unhappiness for extended periods may signal childhood depression. Kotelnikova advises that possible cues can be visible, expressed in outward behaviour, or invisible, experienced internally as thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations.

Changes in a child’s typical behaviour are often the first noticeable signs of childhood depression, according to Kotelnikova. These changes can include losing interest in activities they normally enjoy, refusing to go to school, withdrawing from family and friends, and disruptions in normal routines such as neglecting personal hygiene. Altered eating habits, disrupted sleeping patterns, a notable reduction in concentration, and a lack of enthusiasm for play or socializing may also indicate childhood depression.

“While these behaviours are the easiest signs indicating mental distress, they may also be clues to what might be happening inside a child’s mind,” says Kotelnikova, who is a member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

As children grow older, the pressure to meet societal expectations can lead to frustration and negative self-talk, a habit that can become reflexive in those struggling with depression. Persistent negative thoughts, such as “I’m stupid” or “They don’t like me,” can reinforce a child’s sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Conversations about these thoughts are crucial for determining the extent of negative self-talk and addressing it effectively.

Young children often experience negative emotions as physical sensations, such as tummy aches, headaches, or muscle soreness. These sensations might arise because the child lacks the vocabulary to articulate their feelings. Kotelnikova suggests that parents guide children in understanding the connection between feelings and physical sensations, developing a common language to describe them.

Kotelnikova has established the Study of Assessment Methods and Psychopathology Across the Lifespan (SAMPL) lab at the U of A’s Faculty of Education. The lab studies parents’ perceptions of their children’s behaviours, thoughts, and feelings to better understand child temperament.

The lab also explores how a caregiver’s relational sensitivity affects a child’s reactions, self-regulation, and overall mental health. Parenting styles are strong predictors of healthy social-emotional adjustment, Kotelnikova stresses.

While normal mood fluctuations are part of growing up, persistent negative emotions and behaviour changes may indicate a deeper issue. Parents can support their children by fostering open communication, understanding the connection between feelings and physical sensations, and developing healthy coping strategies together.

“When parents work jointly with their children to understand how they respond to stressors,” she says, they “can help children develop healthy coping strategies and adaptive self-regulation skills that foster positive outcomes.”

| Staff

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