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What does childhood depression feel like?

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We tell our kids that it is easy being a child. No job. No debts. No worries. No end of fun to be had.

But suppose being is not full of endless, innocent fun… Suppose it’s occasionally miserable. Lonely even.

My son Nick is nine. Nick is very clever, often cheeky, and he enjoys a good fart joke as much as the next nine year old. He really enjoys football, Minecraft and he knows more about dinosaurs than most grown-ups. So far, so nine. But Nick isn’t always the happy-go-lucky kid you probably imagine.

Nick is on the autistic spectrum. He doesn’t present any glaringly obvious symptoms – unless you know what you’re looking for. And, in spite of his many skills, he sometimes finds life hard. Sometimes he feels sad. Sometimes he gets depressed.

Like a typical grown-up, I’m already putting words in his mouth. So here’s Nick to tell you how he feels, in his own words…

“I’m nine and I’m autistic. I really enjoy video games, and I like collecting Pokemon. I don’t like swimming, I guess because I don’t have a very good mindset when it comes to things to do with water. I don’t like heights, or romance… It’s disgusting!”

I asked Nick to describe what it feels like to be sad.

itch2“I get sad when I lose something I really like, or when one of my family or friends get hurt. For example, my cousin had to have some operations on his head. That made me feel very sad.

Going to school makes me sad too. Sometimes it’s boring and sometimes there’s too much work!”

But what about depression – isn’t that just another word for sad?

“Depression is different. Depression isn’t normal sad; it’s worse. Like when you lose something really, really important to you – if you lost a family member, you’d be depressed. Or if you lost evidence of aliens being real, you’d be depressed!

I’ve felt very down at times… I was sad when my best friend left school, because I wasn’t really that close to anyone else.”

I remember some times you’ve seemed depressed, I tell Nick…

“I guess it happens sometimes. I remember I was depressed about going to school… It’s sad because it’s like you have to part with your parents for six and a half hours and I don’t like that. It feels like you have to do something you’d never want to do – like jumping off a cliff into a pool of sharks. School is learning, but means parting with your family. And then when you get used to your teacher, you have to move to another year. It’s all starting again and again…

I worry about things sometimes too, like my favourite teddy falling apart after so many years. Because all the love that you’ve put in doesn’t feel like it’s there any more, because it’s broken.

It isn’t easy to explain what I mean. But that’s what depression feels like.”

I asked Nick to talk me through what he did when he felt down or depressed…

“I can only really deal with it by playing video games – that makes it easier to talk about later. I get sad things and worries off my mind a bit at a time. I can’t really talk to my friends about it – I don’t think they’d understand. But maybe you can tell them, if you’re brave enough.

Sometimes I feel blue in my head… Hmm, this is hard… I guess it’s supposed to be! Blue is the opposite of happy. I can’t deal with things when I feel like that. I have to let the feelings out over a period of time.

Sometimes I get violent on things around the house, or I might act strangely and say mean things. In a way, that makes me happy because it means someone might figure out I’m sad. But I’m also sad that I’m expressing it in such a horrible way. Other people might think I’m strange, but I don’t really mean it. I expect people to understand what I’m feeling when I’m sad, but not straightaway. Acting like that is all I can do when I feel depressed like that; it’s all that comes to mind. Then I need to be on my own. I don’t let my friends see it; I only let it out at home, bit by bit.”

I asked Nick what he might say to another child of his age who felt sad or depressed…

itch3“I would say, try not to cope with it by being violent! If you can, tell your patents. Tell them you’re not feeling your normal self. See if they can help you deal with how you’re feeling.”

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that Nick received a small contribution towards his X-Box fund for his contribution to this blog! His words are all his own. Even the big ones!)

Learning to cope
Even though Nick is just nine years old, he displays incredible awareness of his feelings. And he has developed some sophisticated coping skills; letting the sadness out a bit at a time helps him make the tumult of emotions easier to deal with.

Kids can actually be very resourceful when it comes to dealing with their emotions. Many of them learn to hide their true feelings in public, or at school, so that they can let them out safely in their own home. For parents, this might seem frustrating – school gets the perfectly-behaved version of their child, while they have to deal with the slavering beast at home! But really, it’s a good thing. Whatever age we are, we need a safe place to give vent to our feelings, without fear of judgement or ridicule. And if your child feels safe enough to do that at home, it means you’ve created a secure, nurturing environment for them to grow up in.

What to do if your child seems depressed
It’s normal for even the happiest children to feel down from time to time, but if it seems like they’re feeling excessively sad, or even experiencing feelings of depression, just talk to them to begin with. Even if they don’t want (or aren’t able) to talk about how they’re feeling, it’s really important they know you’re there for them.

You might need to give them a little bit of time and space to start to deal with their feelings on their own. In that case, make sure you tell them you love them, and reassure them you’ll be there for them as soon as they’re ready to talk. And if their feelings continue, don’t be afraid to take them to see their doctor. There is no stigma attached to depression and especially childhood depression; your doctor will do whatever they can to help. You’ll also find lots more helpful resources at The Shaw Mind Foundation website in their ‘Mental health problems in children and early adolescence‘ section. Or you may find a book that you can read with your child of use, such as Pullingthetrigger – The complete guide for your family. Anxiety, Worry, OCD & Panic Attacks. The Definitive Recovery Approach.

There isn’t much in life that’s harder to deal with than seeing your child in the throes of depression: racked with anguish, or feeling so desolate they can’t even express how they’re feeling. And I know that, as a parent, it’s natural to feel responsible for every little difficulty your child experiences in life. But depression can affect anyone, at almost any age, and in any situation.

So please, don’t feel like you have failed your child in any way. In fact, strange as it may seem, you now have a great opportunity to help them develop the skills and strategies that will help them deal with their depression, now and in the future. It may not seem like it, but this can be a wonderful opportunity for you to forge an even closer bond with your child.

Chris Lomas.

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