Identifying Depression In Your Child

Updated February 8, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Adult depression symptoms are often relatively straightforward, and adults are generally self-aware enough to know that they are feeling depressed or are in the midst of a depressive episode. Most children, however, have not developed that level of self-awareness yet. They may not know how to communicate their feelings and lack the language skills to describe what they feel or are experiencing. This underdeveloped self-awareness and lack of ability to express their feelings may make symptoms of depression in children look very different than in adults.  

That said, if you look closely enough for symptoms, pay attention to their mood, and consistently keep track of their behaviors, you may be able to identify depression in your child and help them get the treatment they need. 

It is important to note that symptoms of depression may manifest differently from child to child, and what resembles depression for one may not for another. The following symptoms are meant to be used as a baseline guide- if you are concerned that your child is experiencing depression, contact a mental health professional specializing in treating children.

Helping Your Child Cope With Depression Can Be Difficult

Symptoms Of Depression In Young Children

Research suggests that children as young as three years old can begin showing symptoms of depression. Children who have not yet developed the ability to understand and translate complicated feelings often have some of the most varied symptoms. Some of the most common depression symptoms in young children include:

  • Changes in appetite, either acting hungrier or saying that they are not hungry

  • Changes in attitude, being more negative towards things, acting agitated and angry, or feeling sad constantly

  • Expressions of excessive guilt, taking responsibility for things that aren’t their fault. 

  • No desire to play or engage in normally pleasurable activities

  • Less energy, which may manifest in slower movement and speech

  • Changes in sleeping patterns, either sleeping less and having trouble sleeping or sleeping excessively

  • Having difficulty focusing and concentrating

  • Complaining about tummy aches and headaches (physical manifestations are common in all age groups that are experiencing depression)

Depression in children may be challenging to identify; however, it is not impossible.  It requires attention to changes in behavior to identify any pressing underlying issues.  Sometimes those issues may require that you seek professional help for your child.

Symptoms Of Depression In Adolescents

Teen depression does come with similar symptoms that can tip you off to a potential issue. Here are some of the common symptoms of depression in adolescents that may differ from child depression:

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  • Feelings of sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, and other emotions that commonly accompany depression. Some teens may also have feelings of numbness or emptiness.

  • Anger, irritability, and snapping at people around them.

  • Withdrawal from friends and family and pulling away from activities or things they previously enjoyed.

  • Notable changes in sleeping patterns, either sleeping too much or too little.

  • Notable changes in eating patterns, either overeating or eating too little

  • Difficulty focusing and concentrating, which may result in lower grades at school. Your teen may also act out more at school if they are experiencing depression.

  • Mental or physical fatigue.

  • Aches and pains around the body without clear explanation that are resistant to standard remedies.

  • Restlessness, difficulty staying still.

  • Engaging in risky behavior or self-harming.

Some of the above can be associated with changes throughout puberty, but the majority of these, when noticed together, may point to a deeper issue. If you start seeing these behaviors within your child, let them know that it is okay to confide in you or another adult they trust about their feelings. 

Causes Of Depression For Children And Adolescents

Not all depressive episodes have a specific reason for their development. Sometimes, depression may develop on its own. However, depression can also occur due to an external situation that causes mental stress for a child. Some common causes include:

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Helping Your Child Cope With Depression Can Be Difficult

  • Bullying at school or online

  • Intense stress, whether at school or home

  • A life-changing situation, for example, the death of a loved one, parental separation, or other traumatic occurrences.

  • Health issues that cause significant daily pain and difficulty 

  • One or more caregivers with a mental health issue, substance abuse disorder, etc. 

Staying alert to these causes can help you better understand the origins of your child’s depression, paving the way for change that prevents future risk. 

How Can I Help My Child If They Have Depression?

If you believe that your child does have depression, taking the next step towards treatment will equip both you and your child with the knowledge and skills needed to cope with its symptoms and create a healthy, balanced foundation for healing. Here are some tips on how you can get started:

Seeking Out Help

Consult your child’s primary care physician or reach out to a mental health professional who can better understand your child’s symptoms (whether those are associated with depression or are part of a different mental health issue) to provide a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan. This treatment may consist of talk therapy or a mix of talk therapy and medication, depending upon the severity of the symptoms.

Making Lifestyle Changes

As a parent, you can help your child cultivate better lifestyle habits and coping mechanisms that will continue to benefit them throughout adulthood. While lifestyle changes will not treat child and adolescent depression, they will support symptom management. Some of the healthy lifestyle habits you can help your child cultivate include:

  • Regular exercise and movement.  

  • Keeping a regular sleep schedule

  • Healthy social engagement with peers.

  • Spending quality time together doing their favorite activities.

  • Practicing relaxation and mindfulness exercises

  • Eating a diet with nutritious and healthy foods

One of the most critical aspects of this process is to grow and learn with your child to strengthen your communication and cultivate awareness about their mental health. Even though you can provide a solid, loving foundation, depression in children should always be addressed with the help of a mental health professional who understands a child’s unique perspective.

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Because of persisting stigma and misinformation around child and adolescent mental health, parents may not know how to identify and address depression in their children. If you think your child is experiencing symptoms of depression, it’s vital to seek professional help. If your child is between the ages of 13-18 years old, Teen Counseling is available online through the BetterHelp platform. With some education and the help of a therapist, you can help your child on the road to healing. 

An essential part of caring for your child includes taking care of yourself. Caregiving comes with its own set of challenges that you may need help coping with, particularly if you have a history of mental health issues like anxiety, depression, trauma, and more.  

Despite its importance, some parents don’t get the help they need. This may be because of accessibility issues, challenges attending and commuting to sessions around school and work hours, extracurricular activities, etc. Cost may also be an issue, as many in-person therapists don’t accept insurance. 

Online counseling platforms like BetterHelp provide an excellent solution to these barriers. Online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy for treating many mental health disorders, often for less than in-person therapy without insurance. With online therapy, you can connect with a licensed therapist from the comfort of your home on a schedule that fits your lifestyle. 

Caring for your mental health is important if you want to support your child better. Reach out to a therapist through BetterHelp to get started. 

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