How to Know if a Child is Experiencing Childhood Depression

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A ten-year-old sits in my office, describing a feeling of hopelessness. He’s different than everyone else. He has no friends, he’s not smart enough, he’s not sporty enough. Really, he’s not enough of anything. He doesn’t know where he fits and he feels down all the time. This is not how his mom, teachers, or coaches see him. But this is how he feels. This is what’s happening in his mind.

How does depression differ from normal feelings of sadness?

It’s perfectly normal for kids to have periods of sadness, feel overwhelmed, or have anger outbursts.Kids experience a wide range of emotions, and emotional ups and downs do occur as kids grow. Prolonged feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and significant behavioral changes, however, are a cause for concern.

Childhood depression is different from the normal “blues” and everyday emotions that occur as kids grow. Depression is a serious medical condition than can impact everything from academics and school attendance to peer relationships to family relationships. While depression is serious, and the risk of suicidal behavior always exists during a depressive episode, it is also very treatable.

How do I know if my child is depressed?

The symptoms of childhood depression can vary. It is often misdiagnosed or passed off as normal because the symptoms do seem like “average” behavior that might be somewhat exaggerated.

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The primary symptoms of depression include sadness (you might describe this as “low” mood), hopelessness, and mood changes. Watch for these other symptoms:

  • Irritability or anger outbursts
  • Prolonged feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in appetite – eating too much or too little
  • Sleep disturbance – insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Somatic complaints (headaches, stomachaches with no known cause and that don’t respond to treatment)
  • Impaired thinking or concentration
  • Frequent outbursts
  • Poor functioning in school, at home, or in the community
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Not all children have all of these symptoms. Children can actually function reasonably well when they have depression and might appear fine at times and completely overwhelmed at others. It’s important to pay attention to patterns of behavior and behavioral changes.

Possible causes of childhood depression

Just like with adults, there are many factors at play that can increase the chances of childhood depression. Major life events, trauma, family history, environmental factors, and medical conditions can all play a role.

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Depression is treatable

Depression is not likely to resolve without intervention, but it is very treatable. Psychotherapy is the first line of defense when working with kids. It’s important to find the right match between therapist and child. Family therapy can also be helpful to make changes to the family environment. Medications are available but should be taken under close supervision of the prescribing physician.

Suicide risk

Suicidal behavior can and does occur with young children. Take all suicidal thoughts, words, and actions seriously. If you suspect your child is having suicidal thoughts, get to a doctor immediately for an evaluation or call 911.

What do you think?

How to Know if a Child is Experiencing Childhood Depression

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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