Depression in children: definition, symptoms and treatment

Are you concerned your child might be depressed? Here, you'll find signs and symptoms to look out for, possible causes and next steps to take.

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There's no doubt that growing up can be an emotional rollercoaster for many young people. Children can experience many ups and downs as they grow up, like school, friends, family, sexuality and puberty.

However, if you notice that your child seems to be experiencing more 'lows' than 'highs', with these occurring more frequently than you'd expect, it may be that he or she is suffering from childhood depression.

It can be extremely upsetting to watch your child struggle with persistent low moods and sadness. If you think your child may be depressed, it's important to know that you're not alone, and the most important first step is to seek help.

What is childhood depression?

While it's normal for everyone, children and adults alike, to feel sad and upset from time-to-time, people suffering with depression experience intense and enduring low moods.

Low moods can prevent people from feeling happy. They can also decrease their interest in activities they once enjoyed. Additionally, these moods can make it difficult for them to perform daily tasks effectively.

If depression is left untreated, it can result in a range of long-term problems and have a detrimental impact on a person's quality of life.

Signs of depression in children

The signs of depression in children can be categorised according to the psychological, social and physical impact they have. If you notice that your child is showing any of the following symptoms, it may be that he or she is struggling with depression:

Psychological symptoms of depression in children:

  • Persistent sadness, or low mood that doesn't seem to go away
  • Being 'grumpy', irritable or angry all the time
  • Crying more than usual
  • Poor concentration
  • Having difficulty making decisions
  • Being highly sensitive to bad news or rejection
  • Talking about feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Low confidence or self-esteem
  • Talking about feeling empty or numb
  • Self-harming
  • Suicidal thoughts and impulses
  • Older children may abuse drugs or alcohol

Social symptoms of depression in children:

  • Lacking interest in activities or hobbies they once enjoyed
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • A decline in school performance
  • Demonstrating problem behaviour at school

Physical symptoms of depression in children:

  • Frequent headaches and stomach aches
  • Unexplained digestive problems
  • Being unable to sleep, or sleeping more than usual
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Feeling tired and exhausted all the time
  • Being restless or unable to sit still
  • Being more lethargic than usual

Watch our video to learn about private children and young people's mental health services at Priory Hospital Roehampton's Richmond Court, one of the UK's leading treatment centres.

Why a child could be depressed

There are a number of factors that may cause children to become depressed, including:

  • Having a family history of depression or other mental health conditions
  • Bullying
  • Experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • Growing up in an unstable family environment
  • Experiencing traumatic or difficult life events, for example, parents separating, bereavement

I think my child is depressed - what are the next steps?

The thought of your child suffering with depression can be overwhelming, especially if you lack personal experience with mental health concerns. It's normal to feel helpless and frustrated, and as though you don't know where to turn.

You may find the following steps useful:

  • Talk to your child - if you think that your child may be depressed, it's important to talk to them to try and find out how they're feeling and what's troubling them. If your child doesn't want to talk to you, let them know that you're concerned about them and encourage them to speak to someone else they trust such as another family member or a teacher. You could also contact your child's school to see if they've noticed any changes in your child's behaviour
  • Be open and listen - if your child does want to talk to you about their problems, it's important to be open with them and listen to what they have to say. This lets your child know they're not alone and that that it's OK to talk about the difficult emotions they're feeling
  • Take them seriously - if you have never experienced depression, it can be difficult to understand how your child is feeling. Something that may not seem to be a big deal to you could be a major problem for your child, which is why it's important to take them seriously and avoid being critical. Responding to your child's needs in a non-judgemental way shows them that you recognise that what they're going through is difficult, even if you can't relate to it yourself
  • Learn about the symptoms of childhood depression - not only will this will help you to empathise with your child, but will also mean that you're able to spot the warning signs and recognise when your child is going through a particularly difficult time
  • Get professional help - it's hugely important to get professional help if you think your child is depressed. This will ensure that your child receives the dedicated support they need, in order to prevent their depression from becoming a long-term problem. You can visit your GP to talk through your concerns and worries about your child, and they may be able to refer them for specialist depression treatment

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