Can 7-Year-Olds Have Depression?


Depression is a commonly discussed mental illness and is something that I myself struggle with. Sometimes, though, we don’t consider the fact that kiddos can have depression too. I wanted to know whether or not a 7-year-old could get depression, so I did some research. 

Can 7-year-olds get depression? A person of any age can manifest the symptoms of depression, and that includes a child of 7. Depression can be caused by a number of things, such as the loss of a loved one, abuse, or genetics. Symptoms can include irritability, not eating, and sleeping more than normal. 

Seeing signs of depression in your 7-year-old can be very scary. But it is important to keep your head, know what’s going on in your kiddo’s brain, and know how to fix it. 

How Depression Works 

The first step in tackling depression is knowing what it is and how it works. Knowing the beast is half the battle here. Many mistakes are made by parents of children suffering from depression, simply because they know so little about it.

According to Healthline, depression is a mood disorder that affects the way you think, feel, and behave. It causes feelings of sadness or hopelessness that can last anywhere from a few days to a few years. This is different than being upset about a minor setback or disappointment in your day.

Some people may experience mild depression only once in their lives, while others have several severe episodes over their lifetime. This more serious, long-lasting and intense form of depression is known as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). It may also be referred to as clinical depression or major depression.

There are three parts of the brain that appear to play a role in MDD: the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex.

The hippocampus is located near the center of the brain. It stores memories and regulates the production of a hormone called cortisol. The body releases cortisol during times of physical and mental stress, including during times of depression.

Problems can occur when excessive amounts of cortisol are sent to the brain due to a stressful event or a chemical imbalance in the body.

In a healthy brain, brain cells (neurons) are produced throughout a person’s adult life in a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus. In people with MDD, however, the long-term exposure to increased cortisol levels can slow the production of new neurons and cause the neurons in the hippocampus to shrink. This can lead to memory problems.

The prefrontal cortex is located in the very front of the brain. It is responsible for regulating emotions, making decisions, and forming memories. When the body produces an excess amount of cortisol, the prefrontal cortex also appears to shrink.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that facilitates emotional responses, such as pleasure and fear. In people with MDD, the amygdala becomes enlarged and more active as a result of constant exposure to high levels of cortisol. An enlarged and hyperactive amygdala, along with abnormal activity in other parts of the brain, can result in disturbances in sleep and activity patterns.

It can also cause the body to release irregular amounts of hormones and other chemicals in the body, leading to further complications.

Many researchers believe high cortisol levels play the biggest role in changing the physical structure and chemical activities of the brain, triggering the onset of MDD. Normally, cortisol levels are highest in the morning and decrease at night. In people with MDD, however, cortisol levels are always elevated, even at night.

Up to 3% of children and 8% of adolescents in the U.S. suffer from depression. Depression is significantly more common in boys under age 10. But by age 16, girls have a greater incidence of depression.

Bipolar disorder is more common in adolescents than in younger children. Bipolar disorder in children can, however, be more severe than in adolescents. It may also occur with, or be hidden by, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or conduct disorder (CD). 

As in adults, depression in children can be caused by any combination of factors that relate to physical health, life events, family history, environment, genetic vulnerability, and biochemical disturbance. Depression is not a passing mood, nor is it a condition that will go away without proper treatment.

Children with a family history of depression are at greater risk of experiencing depression themselves.

Children who have parents that suffer from depression tend to develop their first episode of depression earlier than children whose parents do not. Children from chaotic or conflicted families, or children and teens who abuse substances like alcohol and drugs, are also at greater risk of depression. 

So we know that depression can sometimes run in families. This suggests that there’s at least a partial genetic link to depression. Children, siblings, and parents of people with severe depression are somewhat more likely to suffer from depression than are members of the general population.

Multiple genes interacting with one another in special ways probably contribute to the various types of depression that run in families. Yet despite the evidence of a family link to depression, it is unlikely that there is a single “depression” gene, but rather, many genes that each contribute small effects toward depression when they interact with the environment.

Risk Factors, Complications, and Other Causations

Genes are certainly not the only thing that may cause your 7-year-old to have depression. And there are lots of factors and complications that come with depression that sometimes are not recognized. 

Factors that seem to increase the risk of developing or triggering depression include:

  • Certain traits, such as low self-esteem, weight, height, or overall appearance
  • Traumatic or stressful events, such as physical or sexual abuse, or the death or loss of a loved one
  • Blood relatives with a history of depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism or suicide
  • History of other mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorder, eating disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Serious or chronic illness, including cancer, chronic pain or heart disease

Depression is a serious disorder that can take a terrible toll on you and your family. Depression often gets worse if it isn’t treated, resulting in emotional, behavioral and health problems that affect every area of your life.

Examples of complications associated with depression include:

  • Excess weight or obesity, which can lead to heart disease and diabetes
  • Pain or physical illness
  • Alcohol or drug misuse
  • Anxiety, panic disorder or social phobia
  • Family conflicts, relationship difficulties, and work or school problems
  • Social isolation
  • Suicidal feelings, suicide attempts or suicide
  • Self-mutilation, such as cutting

Diagnosing and Symptoms 

The symptoms of depression in children vary. It is often undiagnosed and untreated because they are passed off as normal emotional and psychological changes that occur during growth.

Early medical studies focused on “masked” depression, where a child’s depressed mood was evidenced by acting out or angry behavior. While this does occur, particularly in younger children, many children display sadness or low mood similar to adults who are depressed.

The primary symptoms of depression revolve around sadness, a feeling of hopelessness, and mood changes.

Signs and symptoms of depression in children include:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Continuous feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection
  • Changes in appetite — either increased or decreased
  • Changes in sleep — sleeplessness or excessive sleep
  • Vocal outbursts or crying
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Physical complaints (such as stomachaches, headaches) that don’t respond to treatment
  • Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Impaired thinking or concentration
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Not all children have all of these symptoms. In fact, most will display different symptoms at different times and in different settings.

Although some children may continue to function reasonably well in structured environments, most kids with significant depression will suffer a noticeable change in social activities, loss of interest in school and poor academic performance, or a change in appearance. 

Your child might insist that he’s fine or he may deny that he’s experiencing any problems. Many parents pass off the irritability as a phase or they assume it’s part of normal development. But, irritability that lasts longer than two weeks may be a sign of depression. 

Younger children often lack the language skills to verbalize their mood. They may not be able to describe how they’re feeling or what they’re experiencing. Older children who have a better understanding of what depression means may feel embarrassed or they may worry that they’re different.

It’s usually best not to ask lots of questions. Instead, keep a diary that tracks the changes in mood or behavior that you’re seeing. Then, you’ll have a clear record to show a physician so you can address your concerns.

Although relatively rare in youths under 12, young children do attempt suicide — and may do so impulsively when they are upset or angry. Girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but boys are more likely to actually kill themselves when they make an attempt.

Children with a family history of violence, alcohol abuse, or physical or sexual abuse are at greater risk for suicide, as are those with depressive symptoms. 

If the symptoms of depression in your child have lasted for at least two weeks, you should schedule a visit with his or her doctor to make sure there are no physical reasons for the symptoms and to make sure that your child receives proper treatment.

A consultation with a mental health care professional who specializes in children is also recommended. Keep in mind that the pediatrician may ask to speak with your child alone.

A mental health evaluation should include interviews with you (the parent or primary caregiver) and your child, and any additional psychological testing that is necessary.

Information from teachers, friends, and classmates can be useful for showing that these symptoms are consistent during your child’s various activities and are a marked change from previous behavior.

There are no specific tests — medical or psychological — that can clearly show depression, but tools such as questionnaires (for both the child and parents) combined with personal information, can be very useful in helping diagnose depression in children.

Sometimes those therapy sessions and questionnaires can uncover other concerns that contribute to the depression such as ADHD, conduct disorder, and OCD.

Treatments 

According to WebMD and Healthline, experts have found that balancing the amount of cortisol and other chemicals in the brain can help reverse any shrinkage of the hippocampus and treat the memory problems it may cause. Correcting the body’s chemical levels can also help reduce symptoms of MDD.

There are several common medications that can fight the negative effects of depression on the brain by helping to balance the chemicals in the brain. These include:

  • selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs): These drugs can help alleviate symptoms of MDD by changing the levels of a chemical called serotonin in the brain. Examples of SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and citalopram (Celexa).
  • serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants: When used together, these medications can relieve MDD symptoms by altering the amounts of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. These chemicals help boost mood and energy levels. Examples of SNRIs include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor XR). Imipramine (Tofranil), nortriptyline (Pamelor), and trimipramine (Surmontil) are examples of tricyclic antidepressants.
  • norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs): These medications aid people with MDD by increasing levels of the mood-boosting chemicals norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. Bupropion (Wellbutrin) is a type of NDRI that may be used.
  • monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs): These drugs help ease symptoms of MDD by increasing the amount of norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine in the brain. They can also improve brain cell communication
  • atypical antidepressants: This group of medications includes tranquilizers, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics. These drugs can block brain cell communication in order to relax the body.

Besides medications, certain medical procedures can also affect the brain to help ease symptoms of MDD. These include:

  • electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which involves passing electrical currents through the brain to boost communication between brain cells
  • transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which involves sending electrical pulses into the brain cells that regulate mood

Researchers also believe that psychotherapy can alter brain structure and help relieve MDD symptoms. Specifically, psychotherapy appears to strengthen the prefrontal cortex.

There are other ways to boost brain health and help recover from MDD without medical intervention. These include:

  • eating healthful foods and staying active, which stimulates brain cells and strengthens communication between brain cells
  • sleeping well, which helps grow and repair brain cells

Treatment options for children with depression are similar to those for adults, including psychotherapy (counseling) and medication. The role that family and the child’s environment play in the treatment process is different from that of adults.

Your child’s doctor may suggest psychotherapy first, and consider antidepressant medicine as an additional option if there is no significant improvement. The best studies to date indicate that a combination of psychotherapy and medication is most effective at treating depression.

Studies show that the antidepressant Prozac is effective in treating depression in children and teens. The drug is officially recognized by the FDA for treatment of children ages 8 to 18 with depression.

Other medications may be chosen if there are other coexisting illnesses contributing to the depression.

Suicide 

Few things are as heartbreaking and as terrifying as suicide. EMT’s have reported increasingly and steadily rising numbers when it comes to suicides.

They are happening more, and the victims are getting younger. In researching for this article, I found the story of a girl, aged 6 years old, who had hung herself with a jump rope. She had left a note, written in the meager words of the child she was: “I’m sad for what I do.” 

It is imperative that you watch your child carefully, making sure to note any behaviors that appear to be suicidal in any manner. Take these behaviors very seriously. Some examples of particularly worrying conduct would be: 

  • Many depressive symptoms (changes in eating, sleeping, activities)
  • Social isolation, including isolation from the family
  • Talk of suicide, hopelessness, or helplessness
  • Increased acting-out of undesirable behaviors (sexual/behavioral)
  • Increased risk-taking behaviors
  • Frequent accidents
  • Substance abuse
  • Focus on morbid and negative themes
  • Talk about death and dying
  • Increased crying or reduced emotional expression
  • Giving away possessions

According to Eileen Kennedy-Moore Ph.D., suicide in children is very rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 2 out of every one million children ages 5 to 11 will die by suicide. On average, about 33 children under 12 kill themselves each year in the US. 

Moore quotes a new study by Arielle Sheftall at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and her colleagues looked at national data on children (ages 5 to 11) and young adolescents (ages 12 to 14) who died from suicide between the years 2003 and 2012.

They found some important similarities and differences comparing these two groups. Let’s look first at the similarities.

Both groups had significantly more boys than girls: 85% of the children and 70% of the young adolescents who died by suicide were male. The most common method of suicide was hanging/strangulation/suffocation (81% of the children and 64% of the young adolescents).

The next most common method involved firearms (14% of children, 30% of young adolescents). 

In both groups, almost all of the deaths occurred at home (98% of the children; 88% of the young adolescents) and between the hours of noon and midnight (81% of children; 77% of young adolescents).

In both groups, relationship problems were linked to suicide: 60% of the children who died from suicide and 46% of the young adolescents had problems with friends or family members. School problems and recent crises were other common triggers (each present in between 30-40% of cases for both children and adolescents).

Sheftall and her colleagues also found some striking differences related to race and mental illness between the two age groups who had died from suicide. 

Overall, more white children than black children died by suicide, but black children made up a disproportionate number of suicide deaths: 37% of children who died by suicide were black versus 12% of young adolescents. 

Other research from The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital scientists found that the rate of suicide among black children has increased, while the rate among white children has decreased.

They compared child suicide rates in two four-year time periods, one starting in 1993, and the other starting in 2008. For black children, the suicide rate increased from 1.36 to 2.54 per million, while for white children it dropped from 1.14 to 0.77 per million.

We don’t know why.

About one-third of both children and adolescents who died by suicide had mental health problems, but the two age groups differed in the type of disorder that was most prevalent.

For the young children who died from suicide and had mental health issues, Attention Deficit Disorder was almost twice as common as Depression/Dysthymia (59% ADD/ADHD vs. 33% depression), but among the older kids, depression was about twice as common as ADHD (29% ADHD vs. 66% depression). 

Terrifyingly, Sheftall found that only about one-third of kids or young adolescents who died from suicide told anyone that they intended to kill themselves.

Maybe they didn’t believe they could tell anyone. Maybe they didn’t want anyone to know. Or maybe it was an impulsive act and they didn’t have time to tell anyone. 

Moore also cites Abby Ridge Anderson at The Catholic University of America and her colleagues, and cite their clinical impression that children who are preoccupied with suicidal thoughts “do not so much crave the termination of their biological existence as much as a desire for control, empathy, acceptance, recognition, validation, and the prompt interpersonal responsiveness of key people in the child’s life.”

In other words, they desperately want things to be better, but they can’t come up with more effective ways to handle their problems or lessen their distress, so suicide looms as an appealing option.

Ridge Anderson suggests that there may be two subtypes of suicidal children: One subtype feels depressed, hopeless, worthless, and unable to enjoy themselves; the other is more aggressive, irritable, disruptive, sensation-seeking, and impulsive.

This latter subtype seems to be more common among young children than early adolescents.

The murky understanding of death, the relationship problems, the prevalence of ADHD, and the wish for control…together these paint a picture suggesting that, at least in some cases, children experience a stressful interaction, feel extremely distressed but don’t know how to cope, and then impulsively act to hurt themselves, perhaps not really expecting to die.

Experts on suicide unanimously emphasize the importance of asking about suicidal thoughts or actions as an important step towards prevention. This doesn’t “put ideas” in kids’ heads, but it could give them an important opening to ask for help.

For instance, you could ask, “Have things ever gotten so bad that you’ve thought about hurting yourself?” or “Have you ever wished you were dead?” or “Have you ever wanted to go to sleep and never wake up?” or even “Sometimes when kids feel very upset, they think about killing themselves. Has that ever happened to you?” 

If your child’s answers give you cause for concern, or if you just have a sense that things aren’t right, get help. It’s better to err on the side of caution.

Depending on the urgency of the situation, you could call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or call your child’s pediatrician to ask for a referral to a mental health professional. 

If you have lost a child through suicide, no words can ease your anguish but know that you are not alone. Get support from friends, family, your community, a mental health professional, and/or an online support group such as Parents of Suicides (PoS).

Suicide is never anyone’s fault. Even as you miss your child and grieve for your child’s lost future, try to find some comfort by honoring your memories of your child’s life. 

Related Questions 

Will every antidepressant work for my child? Antidepressants are fairly tricky things to get right. The brain is complex, and so it is difficult to get any stabilizing and adjusting done correctly. You will find that not all antidepressants will work for your 7-year-old.

In addition, some medication may have extremely adverse effects on your child. Some antidepressants can make the depression worse. Prepare for several months of trial and error to get things working properly.

Is counseling a good option for my 7-year-old? Many pediatricians will recommend therapy or counseling before prescribing antidepressants for a child as young as 7. To some, counseling might seem like an inefficient way to address the problem at hand.

However, a weekly chat with the right counselor may help your child more than you think. Talking about their problems with someone who has experience in this area and learning about ways to cope with their feelings can work just as well as any medication. 

Will a service animal help with my child’s depression? Service animals are animals that have been trained to assist with the disabilities of their owner. For example, they do have service dogs for depression and anxiety, but it is an extremely costly option.

Most service dogs go for around $15,000-$30,000. These dogs are trained very specifically to the needs of each individual owner. A significantly cheaper option might be to obtain an emotional support animal (ESA).

These animals are not trained like their expensive colleagues. Rather, they comfort their owner with presence alone.

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