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At times, the onset of depression in children is obvious. Your child may become withdrawn, irritable or even show a lack of interest in his favorite activities. Other times, signs of depression can be subtle, such as changes in appetite or sleeping habits. Depression is a serious illness that many researchers credit partially to family and genetic factors.
True depression is a biological event, says Jamie Rishikof, Massachusetts-based licensed psychologist. “The basic biologic causes of depression are strongly linked to abnormalities in the delivery of certain key neurotransmitters that regulate mood and associated behaviors, such as serotonin,” she says.
“Studies have found that close relatives of someone with depression are two to six times more likely to develop the problem than individuals without a family history,” says Rishikof. “The risk of depression among children of a depressed parent is as high as 30 percent by the end of adolescence.”
However, a biological disposition to depression doesn’t mean your child will inevitably suffer from this disease. “The disorder can be triggered by life events,” says Rishikof. “Developmentally, friendships and peers play a big role in a child’s life, so struggles in these areas can trigger depression.”
Although studies have found that depression is linked to genetics, family factors can also influence a child’s likeliness to suffer from this disorder. According to Rishikof, research suggests there is a link between experiencing significant physical discipline as a child and later development of mood disorders, including depression. “Children who often see their parents having violent arguments are at risk of depression in their teenage years,” she says. “A history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse in childhood substantially increases the risk of depression in adolescence.”
Depression looks different in children and teenagers than it does in adults, says Dr. John Duffy, Chicago-based psychotherapist and author of “The Available Parent.” Children and teens exhibit much more marked, sudden shifts in behavior, says Duffy, such as sudden withdrawal from family interactions, change in dress or withdrawal from school. Environmental factors often play a significant role. “In my experience, environmental factors play an exceptionally strong role in fostering depression in children and teens,” says Duffy. “Conflict in the home or a disconnected, emotionally unavailable relationship with one or both parents can make a potent contribution, as well as social disconnections.”
According to Dr. Tamar Chansky, an anxiety psychologist and author of “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety and Freeing Your Child From Anxiety,” family stress, pessimism and a blaming style can be absorbed by some children who are perhaps genetically predisposed to have that thinking style. “Hearing the negativity in stereo – in their own heads and from their parents – only confirms that their conclusions of hopelessness and failure are true,” she says.
When struggling with depression, children and teens often think globally and permanent, says Chansky. Thoughts of “everything is wrong” and “nothing will change it” are common. It’s important to help your children, with the support of a professional, to consider different perspectives by offering alternate ways to see his situation differently.
The more open and available parents are to talk with and engage their children about the topic of depression, the better. “Children need to know they have allies and consultants to guide them through the darkness of the disorder,” says Duffy.
Encouraging your child to stay connected with self-esteem building sports, clubs, musical work and theater can also help him cope with depression. “These busy kids tend to engage automatically and they build the resilience of self-worth, making them more immune to the factors that might otherwise contribute to depression,” says Duffy.