By Shivi Verma
It is possible for your child to suffer from depression. But it is also possible to help them heal through understanding and empathy, says Shivi Verma
Depression is a malady mostly associated with teenagers and adults. Childhood is considered free of this scourge. But thanks to the complications of living in modern times, this problem is slowly seeping into children too.
Recently a friend of mine shared that her nine-year-old daughter expressed the fear of dying, resisted going to school or mingling with others, showed loss of appetite and complained of a sinking feeling in the heart. A visit to the doctor revealed the shocking truth that she was suffering from depression. Her daughter’s problem forced her to review her relationship with her child, and understand her more deeply.
Her own observations and consultations with the therapist made her realise that her young one was basically a thinker and a rebel. She possessed a strong mind, and resented being forced to do anything against her wish. The mother, however, unknowingly ignored this temperament of hers and often coerced her to obey her to instil discipline. This affected her adversely and she began losing faith and confidence in herself. Today, the mother has become more aware of her child’s emotional needs and is giving her the space for it. Now undergoing treatment from a psychotherapist, the little one is steadily improving.
Says Dr Lisa Mishra, a child psychologist from Mumbai, “Depression in children does happen during pre- pubescence, between the ages of 7-11. It can range from mild to moderate and both genders can be affected by it. Children prone to thinking are more likely to be affected by it. If a parent is suffering from depression, children too become prone to this problem because they feel this is how life is to be lived. And a depressed parent is unable to fulfil the emotional needs of the child, making them prone to anxiety and depression. Mostly, depression stems from feeling that something is wrong with them and that they are not good enough. Low self-esteem and the inability to love oneself play a crucial role. Parents need to validate their children, and give them space to be in order to make them feel accepted.”
Although the symptoms of depression in children may seem like common childhood issues, you need to take note if any of the symptoms listed below recur too often.
Any of these signs can occur in children who are not depressed, but when seen together, nearly every day, they are red flags for depression.
Reasons for depression in children
Contrary to the popular opinion, childhood is not as easy and simple as it is often made out to be. It is a highly fragile and impressionable age, that comes with its own set of challenges. Children feel more, but are unable to express themselves clearly. Their sense of self and values too are in the process of formation, which can easily be damaged by an insensitive environment at school or at home. Thirdly, since each child is different, no single guideline can become a gospel truth on parenting. Raising one, or more than one child, who are temperamentally different from each other, can be a tough challenge for even the most aware parent. Therefore unless they dump their acquired knowledge of what is right and wrong, and be fully present to their child’s needs and world, there is risk of their child developing emotional complications.
Given below are some common causes for low self-esteem among children. Most of them are subtle and not overt, therefore parents need to be very communicative with their children to understand them better.
Peer pressure: Each child is brought up very differently and the values they are raised on differ from home to home, parent to parent. When children meet other children in school and see their different values they start getting confused. For example if they have been taught that talking loudly, wearing certain kinds of clothes, applying make-up, or having a cell phone, are not right, they start feeling low or inferior on seeing other children in their peer group doing these things with aplomb. This very often leads to low self-esteem which could lead to depression.
Inability to cope with studies: Each child is unique and differently talented. Unfortunately, our education system tests every child on similar grounds. Many children get labelled as slow learners, dyslexic, ADHD, because they are unable to do as well as their class fellows. This makes a child lose confidence to a great extent and if not tackled for a prolonged period, can definitely lead to depression.
Inferiority complex about looks or status: Common stereotypes surrounding looks and beauty make many children believe that if they have a dusky complexion, wear glasses, braces, or have frizzy hair they are not good enough. Instead of focussing on what they have, they focus on what they do not, which can ultimately make them depressed. Many children feel inferior when they see their friends coming in better cars or having expensive things.
Kriti Seth, an eleven-year-old dusky girl who struggled with obesity, was bullied by some boys from another school for her looks and size when she had gone for an outdoor school camp. Already grappling with self-esteem issues because of her looks, Kriti broke down after this incident and sank into depression.
Fights at home: Children who witness constant arguments and tension between their parents either develop a lot of anger or get depressed. Suhana Chopra used to come down with back pain again and again despite medication. Intrigued, the doctor asked her if something was troubling her emotionally. She confessed that constant fights with her husband was affecting her peace of mind and the harmony of the house. She also admitted that her eight-year-old daughter, Simran, had started overeating, especially sugary things, and her grades had begun to fall in school.
Bullying: Although many educational institutes are taking measures to arrest this problem, bullying at school still remains a big reason for children to lose courage, and self-esteem. When nine-year-old Rohan became unwilling to go to school, complained of shortness of breath, lost interest in eating, and would tear up for no good reason, his parents became worried. When they took him to the school counsellor, they discovered that constant bullying by his taller, stronger schoolmates had instilled a strong complex in him.
How to heal this issue
Since parenting today is confined to biological parents alone, unlike olden days, where grandparents played a crucial role in building a healthy self-acceptance among children, most often it is the emotional unavailability of working parents that creates anxiety and depression in children.
Says Dr Pulkit Sharma, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist and spiritual therapist at Imago-centre for Self: “Depression is not just a symptom but the result of many things gone wrong. It is important for parents to invest their time and effort in bringing up the child even if it means compromising on their career growth for a while. Secondly, every child has some good points which the parent needs to constantly remember and appreciate. Thirdly, if there are sudden behavioural changes in the child the parents should not get angry but try to understand what the child is going through and why. Fourthly, if the condition is severe the parents should not shy away from approaching a school counsellor or seeking professional help.”
Therefore the more confidence they are able to build in their children, the more they are likely to openly express their fears, challenges and emotional problems, which can range from sibling rivalry, school bullying, to sexual predation.
Nidhi Bajaj Gupta, co-founder of Miraaya, a holistic growth centre, and founder of Physiovista, a holistic healing centre, says, “Teachers should nurture children firmly but gently without forcing them or judging them. Hence, a smaller teacher/student ratio is always advisable where a teacher knows each child and is able to give personal attention and love.”
She also advocates being in Nature as much as possible, since Nature has the ability to fill us with positivity and peace. Families should spend time at least once a week in nature, by going for picnics, walking barefoot on grass or sand, going swimming, and playing sports. Ideally, children should be made to water house plants and take care of them. Even activities like pottery making, clay moulding, painting or being with pets helps children feel closer to Mother Earth and help alleviate depression.
She also lauds the use of holistic therapies, “Yoga balances the hormones, and gives flexibility to the body, while praying and meditation help children develop a sense of faith, and connection with the Universal Energy, making them more aligned and balanced. In severe cases allopathic help may be required initially. Alternative therapies like aroma therapy, craniosacral therapy, acupressure, reflexology, pet therapy, counselling, group therapies also aid in healing.”
Kirti was enrolled by her parents in a behavioural class where teachers and therapists worked on her language, life and leadership skills. They helped her hone her talents like creative writing, art, and dance which she was very good at. Her self-esteem began to grow. They also worked on her physical fitness. It took about two years but now Kirti is a happier child. She started loving herself more and began participating in various competitions which made her confident and fearless. Because of these achievements her peers began to respect her and curtailed the teasing.
Dr Lisa Mishra suggests Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for children diagnosed with this problem. CBT is a talking therapy where problems are managed by changing the way you think and behave. It’s most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression.
Suhana consulted a counsellor on the advice of her doctor. The counsellor helped Suhana resolve her marital issues and urged Simran to take up a sport once a week and also go for nature treks once in two weeks. Gradually, Simran began getting better.
Dr Pulkit Sharma concludes, “The key to healing depression is helping the child build a strong sense of self so that failures, rejections and lack of attention does not become a crisis for him. Helping the child figure out what he is good at, and encouraging him to pursue it without obsessing about success helps heal depression, and build a happy and healthy child.”
Any problem occurs to take you higher on the scale of evolution. Handling a depressed child can take you on a trip to self-discovery. As a parent you end up examining many unexplored parts of yourself, which makes you more aware and responsible. Secondly, it compels a couple to have a good look at their own relationship and heal it if there are elements of discord in it. If not for themselves then at least for the sake of their child. A depressed child signifies that something needs to be corrected in the way we live life. It is an opportunity to bring balance and harmony in our thought process. And a time to unite, join forces and keep our differences aside for the sake of larger good.
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