How Does A Child’s Brain Get Depressed?
Differences in the Brain
Research has shown that the brains of adolescents are structurally different than the brains of adults. Teens with depression can also have hormone differences and different levels of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are key chemicals in the brain that affect how brain cells communicate with one another and play an important role in regulating moods and behavior.
Traumatic Early Life Events
Most children don’t have well-developed coping mechanisms. A traumatic event can leave a lasting impression. Loss of a parent or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse can leave lasting effects on a child’s brain that could contribute to depression.
Research shows that depression has a biological component. It can be passed down from parents to their children. Children who have one or more close relatives with depression, especially a parent, are more likely to have depression themselves.
Learned Patterns of Negative Thinking
Teens regularly exposed to pessimistic thinking, especially from their parents, and who learn to feel helpless instead of how to overcome challenges, can also develop depression.
Depression Is a Brain Pattern
In the book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb explains how depression develops:
The flow of traffic through a city is complex and dynamic – sometimes jamming up inexplicably and other times flowing smoothly, even at rush hour. The stock market and larger economy follow similar patterns as does the weather and even pop culture. Mathematically, these types of complex dynamic systems share many similarities, including the way the whole system — whether a traffic jam, a tornado, a recession or recovery, a viral tweet, or the next fad — can get caught in a runaway pattern: either an upward or downward spiral.
So why do tornadoes happen in Oklahoma but not in New York? Because conditions are just right — the flatness of the land, temperature changes, humidity, and wind direction and speed. But there’s nothing wrong with Oklahoma.
The same is true of your brain. In depression, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the brain. It’s simply that the particular tuning of neural circuits creates the tendency toward a pattern of depression. It has to do with the way the brain deals with stress, planning, habits, decision making, and a dozen other things — the dynamic interaction of those circuits. And once the pattern starts to form, it causes dozens of tiny changes throughout the brain that create a downward spiral.”
Trauma Changes a Child’s Brain Putting It at Risk for Depression
Childhood maltreatment experiences may lead to poorer communication between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in girls and boys, but poorer communication between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex in girls only,” explains Herringa. “These brain changes, in turn, are associated with the development of anxiety and depression symptoms by late adolescence (age 18).”
Depression in the Adolescent Brain
Childhood depression often goes undiagnosed and untreated because the symptoms are viewed as typical emotional and psychological changes that occur during growth. Depression symptoms in children will often cause problems within the family unit. Many parents will become frustrated with and focus on their child’s behaviors rather than looking at what their child is experiencing — possibly depression. Parents often discipline their child’s behaviors, in an effort to decrease them. Unfortunately, this may cause the child to feel more depressed and reinforce a downward spiral.
Symptoms of Depression in an Adolescent or Teenager
Estimates from a study published in American Family Physician state that up to 15 percent of children and adolescents have some symptoms of depression. Symptoms of depression in children can often be difficult for parents to spot because they look like the normal behaviors of going through puberty and being a teenager. If you’ve ever raised a teen, you know that appetite changes and moodiness are often normal.
Depression is going to be a more extreme, persistent version of those. It is going to be more than just passing boredom or a lack of interest in school. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), signs of adolescent depression include:
- changes in appetite or weight
- appearing sad, irritable, or tearful
- a decreased interest in activities your child once found pleasurable
- a decrease in energy
- difficulty concentrating
- feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- major changes in sleeping habits
- regular complaints of boredom
- talk of suicide
- withdrawal from friends or after-school activities
- worsening school performance
1. Physiological symptoms
2. Lack of interest in activities
3. Difficulty concentrating
4. Excessive guilt
5. Irresponsible behavior
6. Changing Eating Habits
7. Prolonged Sadness
9. Social isolation
10. Conduct problems
Helping a Depressed Teen
A good starting point when helping and supporting a teenager deal with depression can be creating a safe space for them to talk. There is no need for you to “say the right thing” and try to fix problems during the conversation. Let them talk. Your job is to listen. Responses tend to make teenagers feel judged and shut down.
Depression Symptoms in Young Children
1. Self-blame and negative self-evaluation
2. Disinterest in playing with toys or friends
3. Verbal outbursts and crying
4. Bullying others
Helping a Depressed Child
One of the biggest recommendations that I have for parents raising a child with depression symptoms is to be incredibly careful about the messages that you say to your child. We all say things that we regret, but parents are advised to speak very carefully when reacting to a child who is depressed. Make sure that you aren’t emotionally reacting to bad behaviors with more negative behaviors. Children develop self-perceptions based on feedback from others . If their parents are yelling or saying hurtful things, this can spiral the child down into a deeper hole.
Parents can also monitor their children’s peer relationships. If parents notice certain children are being hurtful or mean, they should set up play dates with friends that are more kind and cooperative.”
Dr. Brie Turns is an assistant professor of Marriage and Family Therapy and a licensed associate of marriage and family therapy. She has previously taught at Purdue University-Northwest, Texas Tech University, and Lubbock Christian University. She currently teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary-Arizona.
Dr. Turns has spoken at local, state, national, and international conferences regarding families raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder. She has published numerous articles, book chapters, and magazine articles on various topics within the field of family therapy. Dr. Turns has been invited to speak at various universities including Yale, Brigham Young University, and the University of Louisiana-Monroe.