Depression in children is more common than some parents may realize. Nearly 2.7 million children in the United States suffer from depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Research shows that depression is on the rise in children and teens. The percentage of children diagnosed with depression increased 24 percent from 2016 to 2019, and those trends have continued in 2020, according to a study published in March 2022 in JAMA Pediatrics.
Factors such as social media, mass violence, fallout from COVID-19, natural disasters, climate change, and political polarization have contributed to rising rates of depression among children and adolescents in the United States, according to a report published in January 2023 by the American Psychological Association.
“There are also huge disparities when it comes to young people and youth of racial and ethnic minorities who identify as LGBTQ+,” says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, Ph. D., a New York City-based psychologist and media advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation. This is due to factors including discrimination, lack of access to quality mental health care, and cultural stigma around mental health care, among other contributors, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Some signs of depression may present differently in children than in adults, which is why knowing the signs of childhood depression is crucial, says Mayra Mendez, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services in Providence. Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
One reason it is so difficult to recognize depression in children is that they may interpret or express their depression differently than adults, especially if they are young and learning how to express their feelings. A “tantrum,” for example, may not just be a child who is angry right now, but a sign that he’s struggling emotionally, Dr. Mendez points out.
“When a child has symptoms of depression but is not exhibiting the behaviors that are typically associated with and known to be depressive, negative behaviors may be misinterpreted and signs of depression may be missed,” Mendez says.
7 major signs of depression in children
It is normal for children to go through emotional ups and downs, but feeling down for at least two weeks may mean that the child is suffering from depression, especially if what he is experiencing interferes with his usual routine, activities and interests, according to the Cleveland Clinic. .
Missing signs of childhood depression can lead to delayed diagnosis and treatment. “Without early intervention, symptoms of depression can worsen and lead to many emotional, behavioral, and academic challenges in a child’s life,” says Dr. Lira de la Rosa. This may mean that by the time a child receives mental health treatment, depression may have worsened and may take time to develop. longer for treatment.
Here are seven signs that your child may be suffering from depression.
1. They seem angrier or more irritable than usual
For some children, depression may manifest as tantrums at the dinner table or in class, for example. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this sign of depression in children is sometimes mistaken for problematic.
“Some common signs may include anger and irritability over feelings of sadness, which may be more common in depressed adults,” says Lira de la Rosa. “They may also begin to act out or misbehave at home and school or experience significant swings in their mood.”
2. They have withdrawn from friends and their favorite activities
Similar to adults, depressed children may also experience behavioral changes such as withdrawing from friends or social activities they usually like, Mendez says. This is often due to anhedonia, a common sign of depression that involves a loss of interest or enjoyment in activities they used to enjoy.
3. You’ve noticed changes in their appetite
“I usually recommend watching for changes in a child’s appetite,” says Lira de la Rosa. Consistently eating more or less than usual — and resulting weight loss or gain — are possible signs of depression in children, according to Boston Children’s Hospital.
Related: How depression affects your appetite — plus 5 ways to control it
4. Their sleep patterns have changed
Sleeping more than usual — or having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep — can indicate depression in a child, says Lira de la Rosa.
Not only are sleep problems a potential sign of depression in children, but they are also a risk factor for developing depression in the first place, according to a systematic review and meta-analysis of 16 studies published in JAMA Network is open.
5. Declining academic performance
Low grades in school can be a sign of depression, Mendes says, especially among middle and high school students. Survey data published in the fall of 2022 by the nonprofit organization YouthTruth showed that among nearly 223,000 students in grades six through twelve across the country, depression, stress, and anxiety were the biggest obstacles to learning at every level.
6. They have unexplained aches and pains
Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches can also be a sign of depression, according to the UK’s National Health Service. Headaches in particular can be common among depressed children who have difficulty recognizing feelings of loneliness or sadness, according to the Mayo Clinic.
7. They talk about dying or dying
Talking about dying or dying may be a sign of suicidal thoughts, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Thoughts of death or suicide are a possible sign of depression, and depression is a known risk factor for suicide. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that suicide is the second leading cause of death among children ages 10 to 14. Other warning signs that a child may be considering suicide, according to the Cleveland Clinic, are:
- Self-harm and increased risky or self-destructive behaviour
- social withdrawal
- feelings of hopelessness
- Giving away their property without a valid reason for it
What should you do if you think your child is suffering from depression?
If you suspect your child is depressed, start by talking to him or her about it. Consider these conversation-starting tips, Lira de la Rosa suggests:
- For younger children, make conversation a part of playtime or another activity, and bring up feelings like sadness. Lira de la Rosa recommends the emotional well-being resource Sesame Workshop as a potential tool for helping young children learn about their own emotions.
- For older children and teens, consider planning a fun activity with them, like getting ice cream or going to their favorite store, and asking them how they are emotionally. Lira de la Rosa adds that often, older children and teens are already exposed to the topic of depression through the media and school.
- When you talk to your child about depression, try to stress how common this mental health condition is. If appropriate, consider sharing your own experiences with depression in an age-appropriate manner.
It is important to note that the above signs do not automatically mean that your child is depressed, but if you notice them in your child, it is worth talking to a doctor. Your child’s pediatrician — or licensed mental health professional — can screen your child for depression if he or she has experienced the signs for at least two weeks. This means that they will ask you and your child some questions to determine if what your child is suffering from is depression or something else.
If your child is depressed, it is important to work closely with your pediatrician or mental health professional to come up with a treatment plan. Evidence-based treatments for childhood depression, according to Boston Children’s Hospital, include:
- Talking therapy, which can help children learn to deal with their emotions, manage sad feelings, and deal with situations they find difficult.
- Antidepressant medication, if further support is needed after talk therapy. However, children and teens are less likely to be prescribed antidepressants as first-line treatment than are adults — fewer studies of antidepressants have been done in young adults than in adults, according to the American Psychological Association.
- Evaluate your child’s environment for factors that could be contributing to his symptoms. For example, if a situation at home is causing their depression, family therapy may be helpful.