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Understanding Childhood Depression

Signs your child might be depressed, and how to help

Published on: December 28, 2021

Tween boy wearing a blue hoodie
Nicolo Canu/Unsplash

Child depression is not a subject many parents are comfortable talking about, but the terrible truth is that there are more kids than ever being diagnosed with depression today. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics on children’s mental health, 3.2 percent of children ages 3–17 (approximately 1.9 million) suffer from depression, and both depression and anxiety among children have increased over time.

Causes of depression in children

There may be a number of factors behind your child’s depression. In many cases, depression in children often occurs because of several overlapping circumstances. Here are just a few of them:

  1. Difficult family events, such as a separation or death in the family, can cause depression in children.
  2. Family history: Children whose parents suffer from depression are more likely to experience depression themselves, and at an earlier age than other children.
  3. Children undergoing difficult experiences (for example, bullying or any kind of abuse — sexual, emotional or physical) are also more likely to experience depression.

Signs your child is depressed

While sad feelings are not uncommon in children, there may be occasions when your child’s “blues” may actually indicate something more serious.

Here are a few warning signs to watch for:

Never-ending blues

One of the most common signs of depression in children is an extended duration of feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Before they are able to manage their emotions effectively, most children experience certain situations intensely. It is perfectly normal for your child to feel sad because they did not get to sit next to a particular classmate at lunch, or perhaps because they felt that they had been left out of a game. But children are generally able to quickly overcome such feelings of sorrow and to turn to something else — except if they are suffering from depression. If your child is still sad because of something “minor” that happened weeks ago, that might be a symptom of depression.

Major mood swings

Mood swings are relatively common in children, but they are not normal if they are occurring every day or several times a day, or if they are intense or disproportionate to the event that elicited the shift in mood. These mood swings may manifest as angry outbursts, irritability, crying, general crankiness, extreme clinginess and any other intense behavior.

A team of researchers analyzed the tantrum patterns of 279 3- to 6-year-olds and found that intense, regular and disproportionate tantrum behavior manifested more commonly in children who were experiencing clinical issues. Major behavioral problems at school may also be an indicator of depression.

Signs of withdrawal

Children suffering from depression are also more likely to display signs of social withdrawal. This may look like keeping away from friends or classmates during social activities. There is no need to worry if your child prefers solitude. Some children need their alone time and appreciate the time they spend removed from others. But if your child seems to be struggling with mood swings and also appears to be socially withdrawn, then depression may be the cause.

Several studies suggest that social withdrawal may be a sign of social or emotional difficulties, and may be your child’s way of expressing internalized thoughts and feelings of social anxiety or depression.

Major behavioral changes

Major changes in behavior should always trigger a parent’s concern about their child’s mental health. Significant fluctuations to watch for include changes in eating or sleeping habits; extreme fatigue; physical changes, such as headaches that do not seem to go away; among others.

Talk of death or suicide

Statements made by children related to death or suicide are a red flag for depression.

Diagnosing depression is difficult, because not all children exhibit the same symptoms, and your child may react to situational factors differently depending on where they are and with whom. What you need to keep in mind is the fact that significant changes in behavior, as well as persistent and intense feelings that interfere with everyday life (school, extracurricular activities, socializing with friends, etc.), are causes for concern.

If your child has been showing symptoms of depression for weeks, your family doctor may help you unearth the underlying reasons. To be diagnosed with depression, a child must have displayed several of these symptoms for at least two weeks.

Practical tips to try at home if you think your child may be depressed

Talk and listen

Many children struggle with their emotions because they are unable at this point in their development to understand and effectively deal with difficult situations. Talking to your child about what may be causing them distress is important; treating their emotions as valid helps them understand that it is okay to have those emotions. Remember that they may not necessarily need a solution, but rather, an outlet to express themselves.

If your child is not open to communication, talking about your own feelings during difficult moments can help them understand that everyone has big emotions, even you.

Find someone your child can confide in

Just because your child is unwilling to confide in you does not mean they will not be willing to confide in someone else. If this is the case, encourage them to confide in a family member, a friend or a trusted teacher.

Help your child manage their anxiety

Many children who experience depression also experience varying degrees of anxiety. Helping your child to better cope with anxiety can lessen their feelings of distress and give them important tools to deal with difficult, anxiety-provoking situations.

Boost your child’s mental well-being

Depression is a mental condition that requires professional intervention. That said, the more children feel good about themselves, the better their baseline mental health will be. Here are a few things that may help shore up your child’s emotional well-being:

  • Show them that they are safe enough to openly express their emotions.
  • Keep your child active; ensure that they are getting enough physical exercise every day.
  • Make sure that your child is getting enough sleep. Encourage them to take rests (quiet time) or naps if they need them.
  • Keep track of your child’s diet. After all, a healthy body contributes to a healthy mind.
  • Help your child understand that they are capable of success. This may mean encouraging them to participate in age-appropriate chores or activities that you know they are good at and enjoy.

Seek professional help, if needed

Denying that your child has depression will not make it disappear. Depression, even in children, does not go away without treatment. The earlier your child gets the help they need, the easier it will be to tackle their depression. If you have any doubts about your child’s behavior, or if you are feeling overwhelmed, consult your general practitioner or child’s pediatrician. They will help you determine the next appropriate steps to take to ensure that your child gets the help they need. 

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