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Childhood depression

Childhood is a time of enormous growth and learning. When thinking about all the relationship dynamics, situations, and events our children are navigating at a time in their lives when many of these things are happening for the first time, it’s hard not to be impressed. In the balance of life, there are high times and low ones. It is expected there will be times when our children feel tired, upset, worried, irritable, overwhelmed, sad, and generally out of sorts. This is normal. It’s when the low feelings persist and begin to interfere with our child’s functioning that it’s time to consider if something more might be going on. 

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR), the common feature of all depressive disorders are feelings of sadness, emptiness, and irritable mood which are having a significant impact on the person’s ability to function and persist over time. In their children, parents may begin to see new academic struggles, friendship difficulties, fighting more with siblings, an unmotivated and unhappy child who is more argumentative at home, the child not wanting to do things they used to enjoy, changes in eating and sleeping habits, more withdrawn, irritable, negative thinking, expressing feelings of worthlessness, and being generally on edge. While much of this is part of life, it’s important to be attuned to the duration and impact of these signs. 

There are different theories on how to understand depression. One is Cognitive Behavioral Theory (CBT) which Dr. Aaron T. Beck is largely considered to be the founder of. In his work, Dr. Beck identified three main dysfunctional beliefs dominating a depressed person’s thinking. People experiencing depression tend to believe themselves to be inadequate, a failure, and see the future as hopeless. A person’s beliefs alter how they perceive their world. An individual experiencing depression would focus on the one thing that confirms their negative self-view and contributes to the ongoing sense of hopelessness. In CBT, the work is on shifting the negative interpretations. 

How we interpret events contributes to our overall wellbeing and mental health. In CBT, the way we think about an event is seen to lead to our feelings and behavior related to it, which reinforces our thinking. This repetitive cycle is referred to as the CBT or Cognitive Triangle. Take traffic for instance. If another driver tries to cut in front of us, we might think the person is a ‘jerk’ and feel angry and upset. We might respond by squeezing closer to the car ahead of us or honk our horn. On the other hand, we might think, “what does one car length change in the big picture?” or maybe, “what if they have an emergency?” In this case, we are more likely to feel calm and possibly compassionate. Now we might respond by hanging back and creating a space for the other vehicle to merge. We control our thoughts, which contribute to our feelings and consequently, our behaviors. When the negative view becomes entrenched and we personalize it, it can lead to problems. 

For a child, with so much learning and development occurring, entrenched negative thinking patterns can stack up and spill over to many parts of their lives. Whether it’s the one missed ball to the net in the last moments of the game (“it’s my fault the team lost”), the returned school paper with corrective feedback in the midst of positive comments (“I’m stupid”) or not being invited to a party (“nobody likes me”), negative and dysfunctional thinking patterns contribute to negative feelings and consequently, behavioral responses (quitting the team, not handing in schoolwork, withdrawing from others). The longer and more pervasive these negative cycles go on, the harder it can be to interrupt them. 

Parents are the most important people in a child’s life, which gives parents the greatest opportunity to observe and support their children in developing the skills to adapt to their worlds. Behavior is the language of children. Taking time to listen to our children and allowing them space to work through their difficulties helps the child see they are valued and capable of creating positive change in their lives. Parents are role models. If we model negative thinking patterns and responses (which our children are highly attentive to), then we are teaching our children this is how to respond to the world around them. For us as parents, being tuned into our own selves and our thinking is a good place to start when considering how to support our children. In supporting our children, paying attention to their behaviors and how they think about things, interpreting what you are seeing in the context of the child’s life, and knowing when it may be time for additional support is important to ensure our children’s positive growth and mental health. If you’re concerned, reaching out to your family doctor and/or a mental health practitioner can be helpful.

Nicole is a registered psychologist in the province of Alberta. She has been working with children and families for over 30 years in various capacities. Nicole holds a permanent teaching certificate and has an understanding of classroom functioning. Nicole is passionate about supporting children and families in achieving success and dignity in their lives through assessment, intervention, and collaborative approaches. 


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