Depression in Young Children: 4 Things Parents Can Do
Feb 09, 2024
Occasionally feeling sad, upset, down, or in a bad mood is something everyone experiences, including children. However, when these emotions are persistent, last for weeks or longer and start to interfere with a child’s everyday functioning, it could be depression.
How to Recognize Depression
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 4.5% of children ages 3-17 years were diagnosed with depression between 2016-2019. Depression in younger children can sometimes be hard to recognize because the symptoms may look different compared to an adolescent or an adult:
Physical symptoms: Because the mind and body are connected, physical complaints or changes may be signs of depression in younger children. This could look like complaints of headaches, stomach aches, nausea or upset stomach, difficulties sleeping or feeling tired even if they are sleeping well, and even changes in appetite (either not feeling as hungry or overeating).
Behavioral symptoms: Younger children may not have the words to describe how or what they are feeling or thinking, so behaviors such as not listening, breaking the rules, more frequent tantrums, and even aggression might be an indication that something isn’t right. Other behaviors to look out for include tearfulness, sad mood, and withdrawal or not wanting to do activities that they used to really enjoy.
Cognitive changes: Children who are going through depression might be self-critical or complain more than before. They may say things like “Nobody likes me,” or “I never do anything right” or display other signs of hopelessness or worthlessness. They may focus only on the things that aren’t going well. Teachers may notice symptoms in the school setting such as difficulties concentrating, decreased motivation, or giving up on tasks more quickly.
Suicidal ideation: Suicide is among the leading causes of death in children and adolescents and can be a symptom of depression. If your child makes comments about wishing they were dead or wanting to go to sleep and never wake up, or even makes explicit statements like “I might as well just kill myself,” it is important to take them seriously. If you are concerned your child may be experiencing depression, it is important to ask them directly about suicide.
How to Handle Depression
The good news is that depression is treatable, and there are things parents and caregivers can do to help support children if they are struggling with depression.
Talk with your child.Ask open-ended questions about their thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Normalize and validate your child’s emotions rather than judging or dismissing their feelings. Avoid saying things like, “There is no reason for you to feel sad,” and instead say something like, “Thanks for sharing this with me. I can understand feeling upset in this situation.”
Get back to basics. Establish routines or schedules around eating, sleeping, and physical activity or exercise, including time to unplug from technology.
Schedule enjoyable activities. Create a list with your child of things they like to do, or used to like to do, and schedule some time to do them.
Schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or a therapist. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment for childhood depression. CBT focuses on the connection between a child’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors along with identifying unhelpful thoughts or behaviors and replacing them with more helpful behaviors or thoughts. Therapy will almost always include the caregiver for younger children. Antidepressant medications may also be a treatment option to discuss with your doctor to help manage symptoms of depression.
Remember, you and your child are not alone. With the right treatment, the symptoms of depression can improve, and your child can begin to get back to doing the things they need and want to do.
Tyanna Snider, PsyD, is a psychologist in the Pediatric Psychology Program at Nationwide Children's Hospital and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
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