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Pushed into the Shadows Young people's experience of adult mental health facilities

Mental Health of Children & Young People in Great Britain 2004

Most children feel sad, anxious, angry or upset from time to time - it's simply part of growing up. Occasionally, their problems will be more serious. We look at some of the causes of distress and depression in children, the signs to look for and how you can help.

Some children talk about their feelings, others express them through moody or uncontrollable behaviour. If the difficult spell doesn't last too long and the child appears to be coping with everyday life, there's probably nothing to worry about.

Sometimes, however, problems arise that can lead to serious difficulties in the future. Children and young people are very sensitive to what goes on around them and, without the right support, can become distressed about situations they find hard to deal with.

Anyone with a diagnosis of mental distress, whatever their age, needs a lot of support. If you feel someone close to you is experiencing more than just passing emotional problems, you should encourage them to talk about their feelings and, if necessary, get advice from their GP.

When people are mentally upset, their behaviour can be unpredictable. For example, they may:

  • become angry and frightened or aggressive
  • seem so depressed that you are afraid they will harm themselves
  • refuse to accept that their behaviour is in any way unusual
  • feel unable to cope with day-to-day life
  • behave in a hostile manner towards you

Some causes of depression in children

  • losing a parent or loved one through family break-up or bereavement
  • problems at school, such as fear of failure or being bullied
  • having a parent who's depressed or anxious
  • witnessing repeated arguing or domestic abuse
  • feeling lonely or left out
  • the death of a pet
  • a new stepfamily
  • physical, emotional or sexual abuse

Events that aren't obviously traumatic, such as moving house, losing a favourite toy, the arrival of a new baby or being left for a long time with a person they don't know, can also cause long-term distress.

How to recognise the signs

Toddlers who are depressed may be tearful and clingy, lose their appetite and wake up during the night or have nightmares. Their behaviour may become very demanding or destructive. Sometimes general development slows down and they forget toilet training.

School-age children may lose interest in work and play, or refuse to go to school. Some become irritable and difficult to control, others lose confidence and seem careless. Many find it hard to talk and show their feelings through behaviour alone. Stealing and playing truant can be signs that a child is feeling bad.

Most teenagers can be moody and uncommunicative at times, and this in itself is not a sign of depression. Signs that a teenager may have serious depression include:

  • finding it hard to concentrate, and losing interest in school work and hobbies
  • becoming withdrawn and losing touch with friends
  • not looking after themselves
  • eating too much or too little
  • low self-esteem
  • sleeping badly or sleeping too much

How to help your child

It's important not to let difficulties continue for too long, as they can sap a child's confidence and self-esteem. They may also resurface later and seriously affect the young person's future.

There are lots of types of help available, including individual counselling, family therapy, behaviour therapy and group work. You could also think about art therapies, including drama, music and dance.

If you suspect any child or young person's unhappiness is more than a passing phase, get help early to avoid long-term depression. Consult your GP or contact Young Minds Parents Information Service.

This article was last reviewed in September 2006.

First published in June 2000.