For divorcing parents, this study is another wake up call to pay attention to the changes in your children during and after your divorce. Other research has found that children of divorced parents are 7 TIMES more likely to be depressed than children from intact families. These two facts together mean that if you are divorced (or divorcing), your child is at high risk for both depression AND for being bullied.
Depressed children show some (but usually not all) of these symptoms of depression, according to WebMD:
- Irritability or anger.
- Continuous feelings of sadness, hopelessness.
- Social withdrawal.
- Increased sensitivity to rejection.
- Changes in appetite -- either increased or decreased.
- Changes in sleep -- sleeplessness or excessive sleep.
- Vocal outbursts or crying.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Fatigue and low energy.
- Physical complaints (such as stomachaches, headaches) that do not respond to treatment
- Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
- Impaired thinking or concentration.
- Thoughts of death or suicide.
Frequently, the first sign of depression in children is a significant decline in their school performance as the difficulty in concentrating and sleep disturbances compromise the child's ability to function in school. Irritability at home, or with formerly "best friends", can lead to increasing social isolation in these kids, which divorcing parents may not notice in the midst of their own personal chaos. However, a marked drop in school grades should NEVER be ignored or explained away.
The depressed child is often inappropriately open in their conversations about their internal distress in situations that make other children (and some adults) uncomfortable, leading to labeling the kid as "weird" or "socially inappropriate" or "socially awkward" and further increasing the social isolation that can make the child vulnerable to being bullied.
The non-verbal behavior of depressed children is also noticeably different than healthy children, with slower movements, sad facial expressions, head hanging, and sometimes even a shuffling gate with slumped shoulders like they are dragging a heavy weight that is a signal to potential bullies that this kid is an easy target. Depressed children are likely to respond to the taunting that is the run-up to a physical attack by a bully with passivity or even silence, rather some appropriate and assertive defensive response.
So what can a concerned parent do?
1. Pay attention to changes in your child's school grades. If they start to decline, seek consultation at the school and get your child evaluated by a child psychologist.
2. Listen carefully to your child. If the content of their conversation (usually in the car on the way to some event) is more negative, pessimistic, morbid, or pained, especially if there is discussion of dying or suicide--take that seriously. Get professional help.
3. Talk to your child about friends. Social support is the best defense against both depression and bullying. Make sure your child keeps friendships intact during the divorce.
Depression is among the most treatable of all the emotional problems your child might have. Modern treatments, both psychological and pharmaceutical, are equally effective and can make a difference in weeks. If your child is depressed, or if he or she reports to have been bullied, don't wait--get them help while they are young. You can prevent the development of more serious problems in adolescence by acting now.