How To Recognize Signs of Depression in a Child or Teen

How To Recognize Signs of Depression in a Child or Teen

August 26, 2022

From time to time, children of all ages feel sadness. Maybe they didn’t receive a present they wanted, failed a test or were denied a spot on their high school sports team. Perhaps a pet died, or their parent is a service member deployed to a distant country.

As adults, we try to teach our children healthy ways to cope with life’s disappointments. Sometimes it helps to invite new friends over, try new activities, adopt new study habits or have video chats with the faraway parent.

But if you notice that your child is still struggling and is persistently sad, take note. They may be suffering from depression.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 2 million children ages 3 to 17 have been diagnosed with depression. Depression is a serious illness that affects a child’s relationships, academic success, and overall health and well-being.

Symptoms of depression in children

Because adolescents and teens have fluctuating highs and lows, recognizing signs of depression in your child may be a challenge. Parents often wonder if it’s just the moodiness of their teen or something more. Look for these signs, noted by doctors with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:

  • A persistent hopeless attitude
  • Caring less about school
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Eating a lot more, or less, than usual
  • Frequent sadness or irritability
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Not enjoying activities as much as they used to
  • Self-injury or self-destructive behavior
  • Sleeping a lot more, or less, than usual
  • Spending less time with friends

Children who have depression may also express:

  • Feeling tired, sluggish, tense or restless
  • Feelings of guilt, as if everything is their fault
  • Feelings of worthlessness or that they are not good at anything
  • Physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Thoughts of suicide

What to do if your child seems depressed

Depression is more than feeling sad. A child or teen who exhibits the signs of depression listed above can often leave a parent feeling overwhelmed, worried and lost. It can be difficult to know what to do and where to seek help. But there are things you can do to promote good health, and there are professional resources available in each community that can offer guidance.

  • Talk about it. If you suspect your child or teenager is depressed, start a conversation. Ask how your child is feeling and whether anything is bothering them. Be aware that while some children will tell you exactly what’s going on, others may not know how or want to verbalize their feelings.
  • Encourage self-care. Eating a healthy diet and getting enough daily exercise can help boost a person’s well-being. Nutrition and exercise aren’t a cure for depression, but studies show that a healthy diet and at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise can help prevent or manage depression.
  • Work with your child to develop coping skills. Whether it’s a mindfulness class, journaling or taking a walk, work with your child to develop coping skills when feelings of extreme sadness take over. Talking to your teen about different perspectives or looking at a situation in a new light can help change a viewpoint.
  • Provide a safety net and make a plan. Make sure your child or teen stays connected to you, a family member or a close friend. Create a list of people your child can call if they are feeling low or feel like they may hurt themselves.
  • Seek advice from your pediatrician or a school counselor. These people are trusted resources who can talk with your child and ask specific questions about how they are feeling. They may also refer your child to a mental health specialist. A special note: If your child ever mentions self-harm, take the statements seriously and talk with their physician right away.

Treatment for depression

A mental health professional will help diagnose depression in your child and recommend the appropriate treatment. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, there are several effective treatments for depression, including:

  • Psychotherapy — Psychotherapy is a form of talk therapy that helps patients learn coping skills. It is offered one-on-one, with family members or in a group.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy — Cognitive behavioral therapy improves mood by helping the child change distorted thinking patterns and destructive behaviors.
  • Academic intervention — Academic interventions are meetings between the child’s family, teachers and school counselors.
  • Antidepressant medicine — Antidepressants are medications prescribed by a doctor to treat many different mental health conditions. Medicines are often used in combination with therapy.
  • Alternative medicine — Alternative medicine is used in conjunction with psychotherapy. It uses relaxation techniques, guided imagery, music, art or meditation.

Help your child develop a healthy lifestyle year-round

Work with your child every day to develop a healthy lifestyle, especially if they are receiving treatment for depression. The CDC offers these tips to help your child manage symptoms of depression at home:

  • Encourage your child to be physically active for at least 60 minutes each day. Involve them in outdoor activities like hiking, biking, swimming or running, as well as dance and organized sports.
  • Encourage your child to get the recommended amount of sleep each night. Children ages 6-12 should get nine to 12 hours of sleep each night. For teens, the recommendation is eight to 10 hours of sleep per night.
  • Encourage your child to communicate. Talk to them about any behavior changes you notice.
  • Practice mindfulness or relaxation techniques with your child.
  • Provide healthy meals centered on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), lean meats, poultry, fish, nuts and seeds.

Causes of depression

As a parent, you may wonder what causes depression in young people. Doctors have many theories. Depression can be hereditary. Sometimes stress or the loss of a close friend or family member is the cause. Bullying and social media are associated with increased depression and anxiety risk. And attention deficit disorders, learning issues, and conduct and anxiety disorders also put children at higher risk.

Whatever the cause, take your child’s emotions seriously. Talk with your pediatrician about your concerns. It's easy to forget the questions you want to ask while at the doctor's office, so prepare a list of questions such as:

  • Can medicines cause symptoms of depression?
  • How do you diagnose depression in children and teens?
  • Is depression treated with medication or psychotherapy, or both?
  • Is my child’s unusually high or low weight a symptom of depression?
  • What should we do in an emergency?

A diagnosis of depression can lead to positive changes. If depression is recognized and treated successfully, your child can live a healthy, happy life.