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How Do I Know If My Child Is Depressed?

All children experience bad days once in a while. They may feel sad, restless, or irritable. However, there’s a big difference between having an “off” day and experiencing mood swings and sadness that linger for weeks. In fact, this can be a sign of a common mental health condition that adults deal with: depression.

You’re always on the lookout for health conditions that affect your child’s well-being. But how do you know if your child's symptoms are a sign of depression or just normal kid stuff? What can you do if you suspect your child is experiencing depression?

Common symptoms of depression children might experience

Like most illnesses, symptoms of depression occur on a spectrum and can vary from child to child. In many cases, childhood depression starts so gradually that parents do not notice it at first – or they write the symptoms off as something else. What’s more, early warning signs may present as physical complaints such as stomach aches, fatigue, or muscle pain.

That said, there are some common signs of depression in children that caregivers can look for. Keep an eye out for the following warning signs:

  • Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, low self-esteem, or apathy
  • Changes in appetite – eating a lot more or less than normal
  • Social isolation or a loss of interest in activities the child previously enjoyed
  • Low energy levels or extreme restlessness
  • Changes in sleeping patterns – sleeping a lot more or less than normal
  • Sudden bouts of irritability or anger that are out of character for the child
  • A dip in academic performance
  • Behavioral issues at school

In extreme cases, a child's symptoms may include apparent thoughts of suicide with alarming statements like, “I wish I could just never wake up,” or “I shouldn’t exist.” Adolescents are also likely to engage in self-harm activities like cutting, burning, and punching themselves.

What causes depression in children?

A variety of internal and external factors contribute to a person’s mental health. In most instances, childhood depression is caused by a combination of factors in the child’s life. 

Sometimes, stressful life events or sudden changes at home can cause depressive symptoms in children. Stressful life events or changes might include moving to a new town, parental separation, the death of a family member, or parental job loss.

Other times, a child’s physical health can impact their mental health. This is especially true for young people who live with chronic health conditions or disabilities. They may see themselves as less worthy than their peers or resent their circumstances, and this can lead to depression.

What’s more, some children are simply predisposed to depressive symptoms due to their family history or chemical imbalances within the body. 

How is childhood depression diagnosed?

Mental illness is typically diagnosed by a mental health professional. However, most child psychiatrists and psychologists will want your child to complete a physical exam with their primary care doctor or pediatrician before they are seen to diagnose depression. This helps rule out conditions like anemia, diabetes, and vitamin deficiencies that can mimic symptoms of depression.

If your child receives a clean bill of health from their pediatrician, they will move on to see a mental health professional. This person will likely ask you to complete the Pediatric Symptom Checklist for mental illness and then conduct their own evaluation. They may also ask for information from your child’s teacher or other prominent adults in the child’s life. 

What are the treatment options for depression in children?

Childhood depression treatment is similar to adult depression treatment. Your child will likely receive a combination of psychotherapy and medications to manage symptoms. Common types of therapy that work well for children who show signs of depression include cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy. Depending on your child’s age, their treatment team may also recommend group therapy or other forms of peer support.

Getting help if you think your child is depressed 

As parents, we want to take care of our children and protect them from pain and suffering at all costs. However, most of us have no idea how to handle mental health situations like depression in children. You may feel scared and overwhelmed, but there are steps you can take to get your child the help they need and deserve.

  • Talk to your child about emotions like sadness and depression. Young children do not always have the words to explain their emotions to us – nor do adolescents – but taking the time to explore feelings as a family opens the door for conversations. You can also use this as an opportunity to let your child know that, no matter what, you will always love and support them. 
  • Schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician so they can provide a more formal evaluation. Although your child’s doctor isn’t a mental health professional, they can collect data with you about your child’s behavior and physical health to determine if they may be dealing with depressive symptoms. Your child’s pediatrician may also recognize warning signs that you weren’t aware of before the exam.
  • Consider psychotherapy for your child or even the whole family. If you know that your family is struggling with the aftermath of a divorce or other life events, mental health services may benefit all of you. There are many different options for therapy for children, including play therapy, traditional talk therapy, family therapy, and group therapy.

At Hello Divorce, we’re keenly aware of the fact that divorce impacts young children and adolescents just as much as it does adults … and we know that your children’s mental health is of utmost importance to you. That’s why we created this resource and others like it: To help our readers navigate not only the practical and legal aspects of a divorce but also the emotional and psychological healing that must take place after such a huge life transition.