How to Recognise the Signs of Depression in Foster Children

Depression can affect children of any age, with figures suggesting that around one in 10 girls and boys show symptoms by the age of 11. Sadly, for vulnerable young people in social care, the likelihood of suffering depression is increased.

One of the challenging aspects of fostering is recognising signs of ill-health such as depression. The condition manifests itself differently in everyone.

Whether you suspect a child in your care has depression or simply want to learn about how the condition affects young people, our guide to identifying the signs of depression in foster children can help carers recognise the problem.

What Can Cause Depression in Foster Children?

While there’s no definitive answer to what causes depression and anxiety, there are personal issues and life events which experts believe can trigger the condition in children. By understanding what can cause depression, you’ll be better placed to monitor children in your care and recognise when something is amiss.

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Personal Factors

Although depression can affect anyone, the condition is linked to people with certain personality traits, as well as those with a history of depression in the family. Here, we look at the personal factors which can influence a child’s likelihood to suffer depression.

  • Personality and traits: Children with an introverted personality are more at risk of depression, as their closed way of thinking can cause low self-esteem, excessive worrying, anxiety and perfectionism – the key by-products of depression.
  • Genetics: It’s believed that children whose families have a history of depression are more likely to suffer the condition, though this isn’t always the case. Personality and life events are more likely to be the root cause of depressive symptoms.
  • Disabilities and illness: Children living with a disability or long-term illness are more likely to suffer depression, as the stress, worry and trauma of their condition can be difficult to manage.

Life Events

Foster children in the social care system may have suffered some degree of trauma; a life event that’s triggered a pattern of negative thinking, leading to the onset of depression. Here, we look at some of the life events and upsets that can trigger depression in children.

Bullying – Both physical and cyber bullying can have a detrimental impact on a child’s health, causing feelings of low self-esteem, loneliness and helplessness. If bullying continues unchecked, it can cause long-term depression and anxiety in children, so as a foster carer.

  • Neglect or abuse: A history of abuse or neglect in the family home is often a precursor to depression in children. These types of behaviours leave scars which are more than skin-deep, and can easily manifest into symptoms of depression.
  • Isolation and loneliness: If a child has been neglected, they may feel lonely, isolated and as if they have no voice in the world. This can cause excess worrying, lack of confidence and self-doubt, all of which are linked to the development of depression.
  • The trauma of being taken into care: On the flipside, the trauma of being taken out of the family home may be linked to the onset of depression. Homesickness and a sense of responsibility for past behaviours can be detrimental to a child’s mental wellbeing, so close support and nurturing are essential.

These are just some of the life events which can trigger depressive symptoms in vulnerable children. By liaising closely with your Supervising Social Worker and the child’s social worker, you can understand and recognise past events which may be responsible for the child’s depression.

How to Spot the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Depression

Depression in children isn’t easy to define. The condition often goes undiagnosed and untreated, with parents and carers passing such symptoms off as normal psychological changes which happen as they get older.

If, however, a child regularly demonstrates negative behaviours or seems to have a persistent low mood, it could show that they’re living with depression. Here are some of the key warning signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • Sadness and low mood: Continuous feelings of sadness are one of the key indicators of depression in children.
  • Irritability and anger: Particularly at small, trivial things.
  • Social withdrawal: If a child prefers spending time alone, alarm bells should be ringing.
  • Heightened sensitivity – Especially on rejection and criticism.
  • Excessive crying: Emotional outbursts are a common sign of depression.
  • Sleeplessness or excessive sleep: A poor sleep pattern is usually the sign of an underlying condition.
  • Appetite changes: If they’re eating more or less, it could highlight a mental health problem.
  • Poor concentration: An inability to concentrate is typical of depression, and is often misdiagnosed as ADHD.
  • Low energy: Fatigue is a major red flag, as children should be full of energy.
  • Unexplained guilt: If a child gets upset and feels guilty about small things, this could be a symptom of depression.

The symptoms of depression differ from person to person, so you need to stay open-minded about their condition. Recognising the signs of depression takes patience and intuition, and you should always seek help from your support network, social worker and doctor if in any doubt.

Coping Strategies for Foster Carers

Studies show that support from family and friends can have a hugely positive impact on how a child copes with and ultimately recovers from depression – so you need to know how best to support them. However, taking care of a child with depression is challenging, and the condition can put a strain on your relationship.

Here, we offer guidance on how foster carers can help support children with depression.

Be Open and Honest About Depression

The stigma attached to depression can make it difficult to talk about, especially with vulnerable young people placed into your care. Teenagers and youngsters often find it hard to talk about their emotions, so try to be as open and understanding as you can, and encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling with a ‘door’s always open’ approach.

Suggest Help, But Don’t Force It

While your initial instinct may be to take the child to see a doctor, this may not always be the best course of action. Instead, you should talk openly with them about their feelings, and make gentle suggestions that they may need some help. Plunging them straight into a 1-2-1 with an unfamiliar face, who will probe them with personal questions, may only serve to compound the problem.

Take them Seriously and Avoid Criticism

On the surface, depression can often be difficult to justify, and it can be easy to take a ‘you’ll be fine’ or ‘snap out of it’ approach. This is often due to a lack of understanding, or an unwillingness to believe that someone so young could have developed such a serious condition. However, you should take their depression seriously, and avoid being overly critical or blasé about how they’re feeling. Instead, listen to children or young people and come up with constructive ways to work towards a solution.

Look After Yourself

Amid the stress of taking care of someone who is struggling with depression, it can be easy to forego your own health and wellbeing. Remember to look after yourself by maintaining a regular routine, as this will help alleviate stress at home and will ensure you stay healthy enough to continue offering your full support.

Our foster support network can help carers get the assistance they need no matter what the situation at home. To learn more about becoming a foster carer, please get in touch with your local team.

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