Understanding Childhood Depression

Image via Katie Hurley

Kids experience ups and downs and might feel sad at times.  Sometimes school is stressful and the struggle to keep up leaves them feeling overwhelmed.  Sometimes friendships change without warning, and they don’t know which way to turn.  Sometimes they regret a choice made along the way and feel guilty as a result.

It’s perfectly normal for young children to feel sad at times.  Most of the time, they work through it and return to feeling happy in a couple of days.  But sometimes they don’t.

Depression in children is an increasingly recognized problem, and it helps to understand the symptoms.  Sometimes anxiety is the underlying cause of depressive symptoms in young children, and other times depressive symptoms are just that:  symptoms.  A full-blown depressive episode is still rare in young children, but it can occur.  And whether a child suffers from a true depression or from anxiety, it’s important to be able to spot the symptoms and enlist help for your child.


Image via Flickr/U.S.Photografie

Symptoms of childhood depression:

  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness, and crying
  • Decreased interest in activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Low energy
  • Social isolation, avoiding peer interactions
  • Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of guilt
  • School refusal, frequent absences, or poor school performance
  • Frequent complaints of stomachaches and/or headaches
  • Decreased concentration
  • Changes in eating habits (eating too much or too little)
  • Sleep disturbances (sleeping more than usual, night wakings, changes in usual sleeping habits)
  • Thoughts about running away
  • Thoughts about suicide or self-harm

Maybe it’s depression, maybe it’s not…Parents know when something isn’t right with a child.

What to do if you suspect childhood depression:

Image via iStock

Check the stress level in the home:

Children’s behavior can, and often does, mirror that of their parents.  Children also tend to internalize the stress around them.  Depression can be situational, and it can be related to environmental stressors.  It’s crucial to think about potential sources of stress surrounding your child if you suspect depressed affect.


Get an evaluation:

Maybe it’s depression, maybe it’s not.  Either way, it’s best to get an evaluation by a qualified mental health practitioner. 

Parents know when something isn’t right with a child.  Get an evaluation as soon as possible.  Be prepared to provide a detailed family history.  Keep a journal of behavioral changes and symptoms of concern.  Be sure to have a list of all other health concerns and any medications your child might be taking.

An accurate diagnosis is critical when it comes to childhood depression.  In order to come up with a treatment plan to help your child through this difficult time, you need to be open and honest and keep an open mind during the process.


Image via Flickr/oddharmonic

Get help:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is effective in treating childhood depression.  Through CBT, kids learn to replace negative, automatic thought patterns that make them feel bad.

Play Therapy is effective in young children.  Through play with a certified play therapist, children can work through their stressors, verbalize and process their feelings, and find ways to restore positive feelings.

Family Therapy can be very beneficial for both children and parents.  Parents can learn how to help their children during depressed episodes and children learn to communicate their feelings and needs in a safe environment.  


Image via Flickr/basibanget

How parents can help:

  • Help your child to eat healthy foods, get adequate sleep, and exercise daily.
  • Make time to avoid all other distractions and really listen to your child.
  • Prioritize therapy and other medical appointments.
  • Make time for special time at an appointed time each week.
  • Work with the school to ensure that your child has adequate support in the classroom.
  • Show unconditional love and support.  

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Understanding 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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