Identifying Depression In Your Child

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Depression warning signs in adults are often relatively straightforward. Compared to children and teens, more adults with depression tend to be self-aware enough to know that they are feeling depressed or are in the midst of a depressive episode. 

Most children have not developed that level of self-awareness yet and may not think anything of mood changes, a low mood, even if they seem to feel sad all the time. They may not know how to communicate their feelings and lack the language skills to describe depressive symptoms. This underdeveloped self-awareness and lessened 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 your child’s behavior, you may be able to identify and help them with treating their depression. 

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 has 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. If you suspect that your child feels depressed, it might help to look for some of the most common depression symptoms in young children, such as:

  • 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

  • A marked change in your child’s 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:


  • 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.

  • Social isolation from friends or withdrawal from 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.

  • Experiencing suicidal thoughts.*

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. This might help get their depression diagnosed early so you can explore treatment options as close to their first episode as possible. 

Consider asking your family healthcare provider about the possibility that your child is depressed during their next physical exam. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached at 988 and is available 24/7.

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:

  • 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 use disorder, etc. 

Children with a family history of mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and anxiety might be at a higher risk of depression. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

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 can help 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 for childhood depression symptoms 

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 mental health-oriented 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 can still 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.

Get professional support for childhood depression and major depressive disorder 

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 availability 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 can provide a solution to these barriers with professionals who specialize in treatment methods like cognitive behavioral therapy. Online therapy has been found to be 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 anytime you are ready to get started.

Helping your child cope with depression can be difficult


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. 

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