Children may be experiencing depression if they are sad for over two weeks.
Persistent sadness could be a sign that your child is depressed.

Signs of depression in Children

Depression (and mental health in general) is often thought of as an adult issue and many consider children to be immune to the blues. Unfortunately, this is simply not true. In fact, depression is relatively common among young people and is thought to affect around 5% of all children and adolescents. Unlike normal, event-appropriate sadness and the brief bouts of low mood that affect all developing children and teens, depressive symptoms are persistent, severe and often interfere with daily activities. This is why it is important to know signs of depression in children. One should try to tell if a child is just dealing with mood swings or something more.

Due to the varied and diverse nature of its symptoms, depression can be difficult to identify, especially in very young children. Though both common and treatable, depression is a serious mood disorder that must not be overlooked. Early detection and quick intervention are key for tackling the issue effectively and can be vital for protecting the long-term physical and mental health of your child.

The first step in helping your child to overcome depression is to learn how to spot the signs of depression in children, so you can act quickly to get them the help they need.

What is Depression?

Depression (depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness or worthlessness, loss of motivation and a lack of interest in usual activities, along with a wide array of other physical and cognitive symptoms.

Depression is considered the “common cold” of mental health issues, affecting more than 264 million people globally. The condition is thought to be caused by a variety of environmental, genetic, biological and psychological factors, and is often triggered by a stressful life event. In short, no one is immune and a large percentage of us will experience at least one depressive episode in our lives.

Depression is also prevalent among children and adolescents, with around 50% of depressed adults reporting that their first depressive episode occurred before the age of 20.

What are the Signs of Depression in Children?

The signs of depression in children often vary significantly between one child and the next, and can be both behavioral and physical. Depressive symptoms will also vary depending on the age of your child and may be mild, moderate or severe.

Symptoms of depression in toddlers and preschool children may include:

  • Persistent sadness or gloominess that occurs almost daily and lasts for at least two weeks
  • Increased frequency of temper tantrums (including screaming, crying and restlessness)
  • Irritability
  • Clinginess
  • Attention-seeking behaviors
  • Reduced creativity or imagination during play
  • Physical symptoms (such as stomachache) that do not respond to treatment and have no apparent cause
  • Loss of interest or reduced participation in everyday activities (like school, sports or activities with friends)
  • Cognitive, social or developmental delay
  • Loss of appetite
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns (difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Fatigue or low energy levels
  • Low tolerance for frustration
  • Aggressive or violent outbursts
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Signs of depression in school-age children and adolescents may include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Loss of interest or reduced participation in everyday activities (like school, sports or activities with friends)
  • Defiant or attention-seeking behavior
  • Poor academic performance
  • Loss of interest in usual hobbies or activities
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Violent or angry outbursts
  • Excessive crying
  • Impaired concentration
  • Impaired cognitive function
  • Reduced confidence and self-esteem
  • Loss of appetite
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns (difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual)
  • Physical symptoms (such as stomachache) that do not respond to treatment and have no apparent cause
  • Social withdrawal
  • Apathy
  • Anxiety
  • Fear of the future
  • Thoughts of death and suicide

What Causes Depression in Children?

Depression in children is caused by many of the same things that trigger the condition in adults and usually follows a stressful life event. In young children and adolescents, this may be:

  • Being bullied by peers
  • Romantic breakups or conflict with friends
  • Emotional or physical trauma
  • Bereavement
  • Loss
  • Poor treatment
  • Problems at school
  • Conflict with parents

In some cases, a child’s risk of depression may be increased by the following factors:

  • A family history of depression
  • Previous bouts of depression
  • Predisposition to negative feelings or poor coping skills
  • Early childhood trauma (such as abuse, neglect or loss of a close friend or family member)
  • Long-term illness

How to Help a Child With Depression

If you think your child is depressed, the first thing you can do is encourage them to talk about their feelings. Try to pinpoint the root cause of their distress and always take your child’s problems seriously. In some cases, you can take practical steps to address the situation and, hopefully, alleviate your child’s depression. Sometimes, children may feel uncomfortable discussing their problems with a parent. If this is the case, encourage your child to confide in a trusted friend, teacher or family member.

Certain lifestyle changes (such as increased exercise and healthier diet) may also have a therapeutic effect that can be helpful for tackling depression.

When to See a Doctor

If your child has been showing signs of depression for longer than two weeks, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. They will be able to make a more accurate assessment of your child’s mental health and, if necessary, they can refer your child to a mental health specialist for further advice and treatment.

In an emergency situation (for example, if your child is feeling suicidal or has expressed an urge to hurt themselves or others), take them immediately to the nearest ER or call 911.

Treatment Options for Depression in Children

Treatment options for childhood depression vary depending on the severity of the condition and are usually tailored to suit the individual. Common treatment options for depression in children and adolescents include:


In adults, depression is often treated using antidepressant medications which help to regulate brain chemistry and improve mood. These are often used over a period of several weeks and may be prescribed in combination with psychotherapy treatments. Antidepressants are also prescribed for children with depression but, occasionally, have been found to increase suicidal thoughts or depressive behavior in young people.

Therefore, it is important to carefully monitor the condition of children who are prescribed antidepressants, especially during their first few weeks of medication.


Several forms of psychotherapy have been identified that may effectively help children overcome depression. Common psychotherapy options for depression include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which may be offered either on an individual basis or in a group setting
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT)
  • Counselling
  • Guided self-help/problem-solving therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Art therapy
  • Play therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the usual treatment of choice for children and adolescents with depression. However, psychotherapy is not a “one size fits all” treatment and younger children may benefit more from art or play therapy. Consult your doctor for a professional opinion on which type of therapy is most likely to benefit your child.

In Conclusion

Childhood depression is a common mood disorder that affects children and adolescents of all ages. Depression often manifests a variety of symptoms which may include (but are not limited to) general feelings of sadness, loss of motivation, lack of interest in usual activities, social withdrawal, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances and poor appetite. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and often disrupt daily functioning and impact heavily on quality of life.

Though treatable, childhood depression is a serious condition that should be addressed as soon as it is detected. If your child has been exhibiting symptoms for more than two weeks, consult a doctor to discuss possible treatment options.