Toddlers Have Feelings Too... And Even Struggle With Depression

Toddlers can suffer from depression. Yep, total shocker right? Many people are surprised by this. And I get how it can be hard to absorb when depression has such intense feelings, and most people feel that in the short lifespan of a toddler, what experiences have they possibly gone through that would cause them to struggle with depression?

The first thing I want to tackle in regards to this topic is mental health and what it is. All people have mental health, no matter what age. The vague term for mental health is a person's social, psychological and emotional wellbeing. These factors are the things that regulate our confidence, self-esteem, autonomy and a great sense of independence. When we have these things we are able to enjoy life to its fullest capacity and we can thrive in all avenues of our inner world. We are able to form positive relationships, problem-solve and deal with challenges, and we are able to regulate our feelings in positive ways and use our abilities and gifts to reach our highest level of potential.

Now as you can see mental health affects all of us, from infancy to adulthood, mental health will always travel with us and it is not a negative thing as society portrays it to be. It is in fact a crucial part of our abilities to thrive as human beings.

On the other hand, having a mental illness is polar opposite of having mental health. A mental illness is a health condition that affects and threatens a persons overall sense of wellbeing. It impedes them from doing certain day to day activities, and it affects how a person thinks and behaves towards themselves and others.

Mental health causes are complex and include a plethora of factors such as social, emotional,  environmental, biological and genetics play a role in the causes of a mental illness. Think of mental illness as an umbrella and place all these things underneath it to recognize the many outlets that go into the making of a person and what can alter their wellbeing.

When it comes to children, their socio-emotional development helps them to understand who they are in the world, teaches them how to control and manage their emotions, and helps them to form healthy relationships with their peers. Providing children love, empathy, protection, compassion, trust and understanding, has a significant positive impact on how they will grow up and adapt to the world and view their place in it.

Understand that not every child receives a solid foundation to begin with, and because of that many children are vulnerable to distrust, a lack of empathy, developmental delays and chances of having a mental illness. The environment around us as well as the relationships that children are exposed to can be a stepping stone to a healthy lifestyle or can cause them anxiety, depression, resentment, frustration and a spiral of negative emotions.

Having a mental illness is not only caused from a lack of socio-emotional development, some children are also born with a mental illness and it has nothing to do with how they were nurtured or cared for.

I know firsthand what it's like to be a child with mental health issues. At 6 years old I began to struggle with depression, at the time I had no idea there was a name for what I was going through, that revelation didn't come to me until I was an adult in therapy for still struggling with depression many years later. I was bullied as a kid and I was very sensitive to how people treated me. No matter how much my parents tried to instill values and build my self-esteem, overtime as I walked out into the world it was a constant reminder that I didn't belong and I hated myself for many years. 

My childhood depression affected me academically and it caused me to see the world as a negative place which also caused me to be introverted and I failed miserably at building new relationships. I just simply didn't like people because I didn't trust them, nor did I believe that people could really be compassionate or empathetic toward me. I grew up into an adult who had many problems when it came to building connections and trusting myself to be great and that is because I had childhood issues that needed to be resolved-like most of us do.

Going to therapy as an adult changed my world. Therapy is an extremely valuable tool for building skills and confidence in areas that affect your well-being. So imagine all of the little people in the world who's emotions go unnoticed and they are forced to be brave and courageous when deep down inside they are depressed and anxious. Rather than ignore that a child has symptoms of a mental illness, it is important to aid and assist in their development through different forms of therapy and incorporating new skills within their home.

What are symptoms of depression in toddlers?

  • Frequent sadness or tearfulness
  • Irritability or disagreeableness
  • Anger or defiance
  • Mood swings
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of energy
  • Sleeping problems
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Low self-esteem and guilt
  • Unable to function in school, during events and activities
  • Loss of interest in hobbies

Children can display symptoms in different ways, and it can affect their social lives differently, so even if a symptom is not mentioned on this list but appears to be a behavior that is affecting the wellbeing of your child, it is important to express that to your pediatrician.

If these symptoms persist for more than two weeks then it is recommended that you plan a visit with your child's doctor to have a proper mental health evaluation done, including psychological and medical evaluations to rule out any other medical concerns that could be mimicking depression. 

What are treatment options?

Psychotherapy (talk therapy) is a great experience for helping to aid your child's mental health condition. As a mental health consultant, I provide talk therapy with play therapy incorporated into it, to teach children how to express their needs and emotions in a positive way that brings results. I help children to understand the root of their thoughts and teach them ways to turn their negative thoughts into positive ones because our thoughts also affect our moods and behaviors. A well qualified therapist will be able to work with your child on channeling their emotions and feelings, to help them understand their place in the world while raising their value and self-esteem.

The "No Strings Attached" Method

We need to teach children that love is not conditional. It is not a reward that they get for good behavior or good grades. There are no strings involved nor is there a rule book on what constitutes whether someone is deserving of love or not. Accept your child for who they are, their differences, strengths, attitudes and difficulties. This will help to build a child's self-esteem as well as their feelings of worth and value. It will also help them to give love to others in return.

Do you validate?

People have feelings, and whether you agree with them or not, they're feelings are theirs and you don't have a right to take them away. When a child expresses sadness or disappointment, take the time to understand what is causing that emotion and walk with them through it. Don't ignore it. Don't belittle it. Don't dismiss it. Validate that you understand that it makes them upset when you tell them they can't play with their toys, but let them know the value of following directions and how it helps them to stay on task and get back to their toys later. When children get upset or have an attitude, in their minds its for a valid reason, as a caretaker it's the adults job to teach them how to positively express that emotion that they feel. Not ignore it. Children need to know that their thoughts, feelings and emotions matter. 

Encourage Autonomy

Children like to feel like they're in control of things and when you give them the space to make decisions it can help boost their self-esteem. Depression can cause feelings of hopeless and a lack of confidence, so letting your child make a decision that can boost their emotions is a great tool. Do they want pears or an apple as a snack? Let them choose. Neither option is bad so there's no worry in the end. This encourages independence, decision making, and helps them to also understand that sometimes we have options as people.   

A Good Night's Sleep

Sleep is important to the body no matter how old you are. It promotes growth, shapes a healthy heart, helps with obesity, boosts learning capabilities, increases attention spans and builds positive attitudes. Toddlers need to 10-14 hours of sleep, so set an early bedtime and stick to it.

Model Appropriate Behavior

Did you know that all that anxiety, depression and rage that you are feeling can rub off on your child? Adults have emotions too, but it's best to try and channel those strong feelings and express them in positive ways when around a child, or they will model the same behavior that you are trying to stop them from doing. Try not to criticize yourself in front of your child or they too will think they are not good enough for not being on time or getting stuff done in a "perfect" way. If you want you child to behave a certain way or have a healthy self-esteem, you are the perfect presentation for them to follow.

Hearing that your child may possibly be depressed or be struggling with a mental health condition can be petrifying. But with the right help and assistance your child can be on their way to a healthy lifestyle.

Looking for a therapist? You can book a session with me or hire me for your mental health consulting needs. 

What are some ways that you encourage your child's mental health and self-esteem?