What are the signs of childhood depression?

Health Agenda
Mental Health

Signs of childhood depression

Depression in children can look and feel very different to what an adult might experience. As parents and carers how can we spot the tell-tale signs of childhood depression?

From the terrible-twos, to sulky tweens, and moody teenagers. Parents will see and experience the highs and lows of childhood emotions and experiences as they watch their kids grow.

Being a kid isn’t easy, and the part of our brain telling us how to behave in a rational way doesn’t finish developing until our mid-20s. So it’s no surprise young people can often struggle to know how to act when they feel stressed, anxious or sad.

While every child is going to have challenging times – whether it’s around starting a new school, taking exams, making and losing friends, or simply the day-to-day demands put on them by parents and school – it’s important to recognise what is a normal amount of angst, and when it’s something more serious, like childhood depression.

Depression isn’t something many of us think of as a condition which can affect our children, but it happens. When it does, it’s important to identify the signs and seek help quickly.

How can parents tell the difference between kids having a bad day and being depressed?

Signs of depression in children

Just as there are many different causes of childhood depression, there are also different signs a child may be experiencing depression, which are different from what we commonly see in adults, says child psychologist Rita Princi-Hubbard.

“Children tend to show more signs of anger, irritability and aggression. We all have a fight or flight response in reaction to fear or high levels of anxiety. But, with children, the fight response is more readily triggered. This may be why depression in children is sometimes missed or misdiagnosed as a behavioural issue.”

Here are some other common signs of depression in children:

  • Changes in eating. Over or under-eating may suggest your child is looking for things they can control if they're feeling powerless elsewhere in their lives.
  • Emotional outbursts. Inability to control emotion, or what seem like over-reactions to small events or something that may not have bothered them in the past, can be signs of depression.
  • Lack of interest in school or activities involving others. “Depressed kids can find friendships difficult as they feel too tired or sad to bring anything to a relationship,” says Rita. “This can lead to them self-isolating.” Bullying can also lead to depression.
  • Difficulty concentrating. While this could also be a sign of a learning issue, children experiencing depression may also find it hard to focus on tasks.
  • Negative self-talk. If your child is saying things such as, “I’m so stupid", "I can’t do anything" or "I never get anything right” they may be experiencing feelings of being worthless or not good enough, both of which are symptoms of depression.

While all of these ‘signs’ can also simply be common markers of just being a kid, Rita says to take note how long it’s been going on for. If these behaviours persist for 2 weeks or more, you may need to seek help.

And, remember, no one knows your child as well as you do, so if they don’t seem themselves, trust your instincts.

“Watch for extremes in behaviours and ongoing patterns and talk to your GP if you think your child needs extra support,” says Rita.

“If your child is acting out at home, ask their teacher, or other parents from their school, if they’ve seen any changes or witnessed anything which might have upset your child. Ask them how they seem while they’re at school, and how they’re behaving in class and on the playground.”

Help for a child with depression and their families

If you’re concerned about your child’s mental wellbeing, we have useful tools and resources for the whole family.

HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central*, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4-11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations.

Access is also available to a range of mental health support, like the HealthyMinds check-in delivered by PSYCH2U for eligible HCF members^ and online courses through This Way Up+, a not-for-profit initiative developed by experienced psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, to help you take control of your mental wellbeing.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Where to find extra help for kids’ mental health support:

Words by Kerry McCarthy
Updated October 2021

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