Depressed Grandchild

Could my grandson be clinically depressed, even at 10yrs old?

depressed sad boyQuestion: I’m raising my 10yr old grandson. I’ve had him since he is 6mos old, due to his mother having uncontrolled Bipolar Disorder. It is very hard for him living apart from his mother, with whom he has had a scattered relationship throughout the years. He sees a counselor, but I’m noticing significant changes lately. He has become more withdrawn, has little established friendships with peers, and is content to play video games online or with his DS. He complains almost constantly about having a stomach ache and has started to fall asleep in some of his classes at school. He says he misses his mother a lot more and sometimes states that he wants to live with her. Could he be clinically depressed, even at 10yrs old?

Signed: Worried Grandma


Dear Worried Grandma,

First of all, I want to extend my respect to you for raising your grandson since he was an infant!! From the tone of your letter it sounds like you are very committed, and care a great deal. In response to your question could he be clinically depressed, even at 10yrs old? The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. Let’s look at the variables here.

Your grandson’ mother has uncontrolled Bipolar. Genetically he is may be predisposed to bipolar disorder. That does not mean that he will definitely be depressed, but rather that there is an increased likelihood coupled with other stress factors.

Bipolar is a disorder where there are periods of depression, and periods of hyperactivity, or mania. This disorder used to be called Manic Depressive. It is also characterized by frequent mood swings. It is important to make an appropriate diagnosis. Even though Bipolar presents as depression at times, it is actually treated with completely different medication. Patients with Bipolar can become worse when treated with anti depressants.

He is ten years old which means that he is nearing or already engaged in an adolescent or preadolescent identity search. It is expected that he inquire after his mother, and want to understand her more. Until a child develops an independent sense of self and identity, they often view themselves as extensions of their parents. This is still true after emancipation, or establishing a separate sense of identity, that they still see themselves as being, or having a part of each parent. This is an age appropriate hurdle to cross.

The other symptoms that you describe are classic depression symptoms. You wrote that you have been “noticing significant changes lately. He has become more withdrawn, has little established friendships with peers, and is content to play video games online or with his DS. He complains almost constantly about having a stomach ache and has started to fall asleep in some of his classes at school.” Changes in eating or sleeping patterns disinterest in socializing, and physical manifestation of pain such as stomach aches are typical symptoms of depression.

Many children have depression or suffer from other disorders like Bipolar. It used to be believed that it was an adult disorder, but more and more childhood and adolescent diagnosis are made every year. I personally have treated a handful of children/ adolescence with this disorder.

It is imperative that you speak with your grandson’s pediatrician, and describe to him what you have observed. He may be able to make a referral to a child psychiatrist who can treat your grandson. I should warn you that Bipolar can sometimes present not only like depression, but also has some similarities to borderline personality disorder. These sorts of diagnosis require cancelling out the other disorders, and it is a process that requires patience.

The good news is that when these disorders are caught early (like with your grandson), the prognosis is significantly better. The earlier it is treated, the more manageable it is.

If indeed your grandson does have disorder, it is important that you understand that it can be treated. Considering what your son and family have gone through with your grandsons mother it is understandable that this may raise considerable worry or resistance. It may help to talk about these concerns with a therapist or join a support group.

I wish you all, the best! Your son and grandson are lucky to have you!

Odelia Schlisser is a life coach with a Masters Degree in Sociology and a Masters Degree in Education, and is trained in Family Therapy. She currently lectures Psychology and Behavioral Science in Mercy College and has spent the past several years counseling children, teens, and their parents and teachers.

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  1. I’ve been wondering about my 8-year-old daughter, who has been complaining of headaches – only on school days! I appreciate your advice, and this article has motivated me to make an appointment with our pediatrician to check this out.

    Thank you.

    Mary, mom of 4 small souls

  2. A lot of the symptoms: withdrawn, lack of peer group, stomach ache, sleeping in class (not sleeping at night because of anxiety), can also point to bullying issues that he doesn’t know how to deal with and is too ashamed to mention. This is something you might want to check into as well


  3. This article is really apropos for me. My 14 year-old son has been slowly neglecting his friends and other social activities for the past few months. I don’t see any changes regarding his eating, but he definitely is in a sour mood more often than not. I will be calling the school counselor for an appointment to get to the bottom of this. The last thing I want to do is mistakenly have him diagnosed with a clinical term like depression, when it’s really regular teen-moodiness, however I don’t want to let a potential problem fester much longer.

  4. Diane Thoroughman says:

    I have four children ages 18, 15, 13 and 9 years old. My 15 year old is the only boy and he has asperger’s disorder. My 13 year old is on prozac and gets regular monthly counseling. At one time her counseling was more often but once a month is all she needs now and that will probably quit in the next month or so. My 18 year old who will soon be 19 and has just gotten married has bipolar disorder. She was first diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder when she was 10 years old. She had stomach aches, she cried a lot, she told me she wanted God to take her to heaven because she was tired of living and just wanted to die. She was also very miserable. Counseling alone did not help her. It was prozac that helped her. Her first cousin has bipolar one while she has bipolar two. Every year her pedicatrician would take her off the medicine to see how she was doing and then within 3 months she would relapse. When she was 14 prozac was not working and she got really bad. She even took an overdose not to kill herself but to try and get happy. Thus she only took a small amount of a controlled substance called clonazepan. Anyhow she ended up on seroquel which has done wonders for her. However, she was not given a bipolar diagnosis at that time. It was when she was 17 and seeing a different female counselor that her seroquel was increased and she was given the bipolar two diagnosis. She is still on prozac though because the prozac has helped her depressive symptoms as well as her anxiety. But it is the seroquel that helps her to sleep at night, that controls her emotions and her anger. Without the seroquel I would not want to be near her.

    So yes kids even at ten and younger can have mental illness. It is just that years ago when kids were suffering parents did not always recognize it and even sometimes called it a stage. I know for myself I have suffered depression even when I was a child but my mom would not acknowledge it. In fact a doctor once told her I needed to see a counselor when I was 13 and she was offended. I was excited to think I would get to see someone until she got mad and then I felt I like I died a little inside.

    Even though my mom has changed a lot and recognizes mental illness as a problem in society it is still not okay for her family members to have problems. She doesn’t say so exactly but the messages she gives are mixed and I know it is a problem for her even though she is at least trying.

    For myself, I am no longer on medication as it never helped me. Behavior therapy helped me much better than medication. However, for my husband he too is on an antidepressant and he has gotten much relief from his symptoms as has his mom.

    So yes there can be a genetic component to mental illness. It does not mean that if there is a family history of mental illness that all the members of the family are going to have a problem but only that it increases the likelyhood of mental illness occurring.

    I urge you to take your son to a pediatrician for a pscyhiatric referral, and also for you to look up the nearest NAMI in your phone book and get a hold of one of the members there. They can give you support. Not financial but emotional support and information. NAMI stands for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. However they do not like the term mental illness but instead brain disorders because brain disorders suggests things going wrong in the brain such as chemical imbalances and that really is what mental illness is. You can also google NAMI and get lots of information. Also yahoo has lots of groups for family members of children who are suffering from mental illness. Just realize if you sign up you might find yourself inundated with emails.

    I hope this helps. Oh one of the things I ended up doing because school was a nightmare for my two older kids and was gearing that way for my 13 year old was to pull them out and homeschool them. Well, my two younger kids are now attending a public school that is online and done at home. My oldest got her GED when she was 16 and now my son will be attending a local place that helps kids get their GED when school is not working well for the kid. This is also for kids who do not qualify for an alternative school as the local alternative school in my area will not take kids with mental illness. The regular school is not prepared for mental illness so even though they have to take them I have found that sometimes getting help from the school is an uphill battle when it comes to following through on an IEP or a 504.

    Perhaps you will have better luck with the school in your area. I live in a small town and I know that has contributed to the problems.

    Sincerely, Diane Thoroughman

    I wish you and your grandson good luck. There are resources out there, but sometimes it takes time to find them.

  5. These are also signs of a child who is a sensitive or an empath, often diagnosed as depression or other mental disease. Please google these and see if this might be the case.

  6. There is so much pain in these posts. I see that everyone is trying a lot of drug therapy – but has anyone looked at diet?

    A poor diet can cause lethagy, depression, lack of concentration, behavior problems, and such too. The first thing I would want to do is make sure you all are eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise.

    In addition to following your doctor’s advice, try eating all real foods, getting 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and making sure they have enough physical activity. Costs nothing to try it, and it certainly won’t hurt.

  7. While I agree that children can certainly suffer from depression and, there can certainly be genetic influences involved sometimes and at times, medication is a big help, sometimes brain disorders/mental illnesses can be overdiagnosed as well (especially in children) and I would recommend that you also look at things such as “how much access does he have to electronic devices” You mentioned video games, I Pods, and such. Is there a limit to how much he is on these? It can be a way of burying or not dealing with issues under the surface as well and he could benefit from learning how to communicate these feelings. He may love YOU very much but because of that feel like it’s difficult to talk about or express things that he feels may worry you. I’m not saying that he is or isn’t suffering from depression, but perhaps his counselor is not the right one for him. I commend you for offering him someone neutral that he can talk to without worrying about how what he says will be percieved. You may need this as a family, too, so that you can learn to see and practice different ways to communicate and listen (which you seem open to and is evident from your honest concern). Depressed people may very well need meds to help them if there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, but they also need to feel “listened” to and able to talk about what’s going on or what they’re feeling (or not feeling) without being ashamed or feeling like they’re a burden or like they need to bury what they’re feeling. I would consider dietary alternatives as well. There are no easy answers. I will pray for you both during this difficult time.

  8. Bless you each and everyone who replied…what a wonderful group of people. What a great grandmother to love and hold her family so dear.


    My husband has cancer and my daughter has been treated with so many medicines for her stomach problems that her pediatrician said today,’ Have you started counseling with her, she definitely needs counseling…….we are at the end of the rope as far as meds” I thought if I could do healthy cooking coupled with counseling that it would help the whole family. This has been going on for four years and I really need help as Dear Husband just finished six rounds of chemotherapy. Do you know of a good healthy cookbook for a struggling, stressed, anxious Wife and Mother who wants to do something pro-active? Thank you, Jeannie

  9. Lata Shenava says:

    I totally endorse what Carole says. another point i would like to add is that it is important to look at community-based interventions systems in collaboration with mental health professionals rather than rushing to therapists in the beginning. its true mental health professionals have a very significant place in our society particularly in the absence of social supports, but maybe we should look at significant others in our children’s life as traditionally childrearing was enhanced due to these supports

    Lata, Mumbai, India

  10. Jeannie,
    I am a home-educator, not a particularly ‘good’ cook but someone who does have a great belief in the power that healthy food provides for my family and their well-being. I notice a huge difference with both my boys when their diet is right – I mean ‘huge’. Of course other things have to be taken into consideration as well but in tackling the nutrition issue, I want easy, nutritious, reasonably priced meals that fit in with our home-schooling schedule.
    I finally found a great resource at

    The crockpot/slow cooker is fantastic – no hours of preparation and the recipes are exactly that – home-cooked, easy and nutritious. The kids help too and love it!

    Good luck

  11. Narelle Debenham says:

    How lucky your grandson is to have such a loving and supportive constant in his life, his grandmother! I would dearly love for you to get a copy of the book…..Last Child in the woods, by Richard Louv….combatting nature Deficit in children…..the health benefits of connecting with nature are huge, so my advice to you would be to turn off the electronic media, and “Get outdoors, it’s in our Nature!”

    Narelle is an Educator from Australia, who conducts weekly activities with pre-schoolers in the great outdoors….quality childhood experiences encourage healthy, happy living.

  12. It is wonderful that you are reaching out to help your grandson! So many people in my parents’ generation are reluctant to seek help because of the stigma of mental illness. I know that if their child or grandchild has diabetes or leukemia that they would seek medical attention for that child. Depression is also a physical illness where your brain does not produce enough serotonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine (or a combination of two or three chemicals) causing the brain not to transmit messages correctly. I was diagnosed with depression 10 years ago and was floored when the doctor told me that! My mother had depression when I was growing up although I didn’t know that is what it was. She was reluctant to openly discuss this and mostly with just her closest friends and family. My father also was diagnosed with depression but later he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was adopted so this was not passed on to me; I am mentioning this because I have been around mental illness for most of my life. But my history of depression, my husband’s anxiety, and my mother-in-law’s depression make my sons predisposed to it.

    We have two sons, the older one is going to turn 14 in March. He is in the 8th grade now. He is also withdrawn, hasn’t made true friendships, and withdraws into video games like your grandson. When he was in 3rd grade, some boys started to pick on him and has continued to 8th. Although the bullying has been by different kids, it has affected him tremendously eventually leading to severe major depression. I have taken him to a number of counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists over the 5 years, and he has been on an anti-depressant since he was 10. Medication may not be the right answer for your grandchild but his doctor and you can decide what is best for him.

    We live in a rural area where mental health professionals are few and far between; however, I encourage you to ask around for a pediatric psychiatrist until you find a good one that you and your grandson are both comfortable with. Go with your gut if you don’t get the diagnosis you feel he has. We recently had my son evaluated by a neuropsychologist because we thought he had signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. She told us that he definitely has characteristics of Asperger’s but could not give a diagnosis on that but his depression may be so severe that the depression is masking the Asperger’s.
    Upon her recommendation, we have now taken him to a pediatric psychiatrist, whom we saw yesterday for the first time. This doctor was highly recommended and it takes us a hour to get to his office. But we have decided that we will do whatever it takes to make him well.

    I don’t want anyone to think that I am an expert of any kind; I just know what I have been through with my family. Ask your pediatrician or counselor for referrals and start from there. Also keep listening to him and noticing more changes.

    It is so painful to have your child going through something like this. Eighth grade was awful for me, but it is 100 times worse this second time! Good luck to both of you, with love and prayers!

  13. Kelly biddick says:

    Hi everyone we have been raising our 7 year old grandaughter since she was 11 days old we have 4
    Other grandchildren.our grandaughter has lots of contact with mum but lately her behaviour has taken a turn for the worse. She yell at us ignores anything thats asked of her disrepects us slams doors plays is off with each other she is well taken care of she is stable at school a high achiever lots of outside activitys great holidays at this present time she seems to want to be with her other family on holidays and has even asked if she can live with her mum im becoming broken and dont no what else i can do please help!!