About depression in preschoolers
It’s common for preschoolers to feel down, be cranky or think negatively. This is part of healthy emotional development. But childhood depression is more than just feeling sad, blue or low.
Depression is a mental health problem that affects children’s thinking, mood and behaviour. Children with depression often feel negative about themselves, their situation and their future.
Depression can get in the way of preschoolers’ ability to enjoy daily life. And if it goes on for a long time without treatment, it can affect their development. For example, depression can make it hard for preschoolers to:
- think and learn
- manage emotions
- get along with peers and make friends
- feel confident.
With the right professional care, plus family love and support, preschoolers can recover from depression.
If your child talks about running away or says anything about suicide or self-harm – like ‘It would be better if I wasn’t here’ – you should take this seriously. Seek professional help straight away from your GP or child and family health nurse, or call Lifeline on 131 114. If you’re really worried about your child or yourself, call 000 and ask for help, or go to the closest emergency department.
Signs and symptoms of depression in preschoolers
If you notice any of the following changes in your child, and these signs last longer than about 2 weeks, your child might have depression.
Changes in emotions
You might notice that your child:
- seems sad or unhappy most of the time
- seems afraid or worried a lot
- gets irritated or angry easily and/or often
- gets easily frustrated and doesn’t want to try something unless they know they can do it
- gets very upset or worried if they’re told that they’ve done something wrong.
Changes in general behaviour
You might notice that your child:
- gets very upset about being separated from you
- won’t do what you ask most of the time or has a lot of tantrums
- is aggressive, hits themselves or throws objects
- says negative things about themselves, like ‘I’m not good at anything’, ‘No-one likes me’ or ‘I’m dumb’
- blames themselves or apologises a lot, or often says things like ‘It’s always my fault’
- struggles to speak and then bursts into tears
- gives up easily and says things like ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’ll never be able to do this’.
Changes in behaviour at preschool
Your child’s preschool teacher might tell you that your child:
- is timid or withdrawn
- isn’t taking part in preschool activities
- isn’t playing with other children
- has problems fitting in or getting along with other children
- behaves in challenging ways more often, like having more tantrums or being more aggressive at preschool.
Changes in everyday interests and activities
You might notice that your child:
- isn’t interested in playing or doing things they used to enjoy – they might say ‘I’m bored’ or ‘Nothing is fun’
- plays games with violent or negative themes – for example, they make their puppets die violently
- doesn’t want to be around friends and family
- has problems concentrating and remembering things.
Changes in physical health or lifestyle
You might notice that your child has:
- less energy than they usually do
- sleep problems, including nightmares
- gained or lost a lot of weight
- changes in appetite – for example, not eating or overeating
- persistent stomach pain or headaches, and these don’t seem to have a physical or medical cause.
Children with depression are also more likely than others to experience anxiety. If you’re worried about any change in your child’s mood or behaviour, encourage your child to talk with you about their feelings, and really listen to what they’re saying. Listening and showing that you understand can comfort your child if something is bothering them.
What to do if you’re worried about depression in preschoolers
If you think your child might have depression, it’s important to get professional help.
The first step is to see your GP. They can give you a referral to a paediatrician, psychiatrist or psychologist, who can diagnose depression in children.
If you can’t get help quickly, feel concerned about your child’s safety or don’t know what to do, find your local area mental health service by calling your nearest hospital or by calling Lifeline on 131 114.
Your GP will probably talk with you about a mental health treatment plan for your child. If you have a plan, your child can get Medicare rebates for up to 10 sessions with a mental health professional. You can also get Medicare rebates for visits to a paediatrician or psychiatrist.
Professional support for depression
Depression is unlikely to get better by itself. But with early professional support, your child is likely to get better faster and grow up healthy and well. Your child is also less likely to have depression later in life.
Your child can get support from a child mental health professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist. A psychiatrist or psychologist will probably work on helping your child express and manage emotions, practise self-regulation and feel safe and secure in their relationships.
To do this, the psychologist or psychiatrist might use therapies like these:
- Parent-Child Interaction Therapy – Emotion Development (PCIT-ED): this can help your child better express and manage their emotions, handle stress, develop coping skills and practise self-regulation.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): this can help your child change unhelpful thinking habits and behaviour, depending on your child’s age and their ability to express themselves.
- Relaxation exercises: these can help reduce your child’s anxiety and teach them how to calm down when they feel overwhelmed.
- Play therapy: this can help your child explore their feelings and learn new ways to manage big emotions.
If your child is getting professional support to manage and recover from depression, it’s important for you to be involved in your child’s therapy sessions. When you’re involved, you’ll better understand the therapies that the psychologist or psychiatrist is using with your child. The psychologist or psychiatrist can also explain how you can use these therapies at home to help your child manage their feelings.
When you and your child’s health professionals work as a team to support your child, it can make a big difference to your child’s recovery. Talk with the professionals about how you can support your child’s therapy at home.
Managing depression in preschoolers: support at home
Here are some simple and effective ways that you can help your child manage and recover from depression as part of your everyday family life:
- Give your child plenty of love, affection and positive attention. For example, you can cuddle, read and talk and listen together. A positive relationship with you directly and positively affects your child’s mental health.
- Praise your child for giving things a go, doing their best or trying something new. This builds your child’s confidence and self-esteem, which are important for recovery and for overall child development.
- Work on your child’s resilience and self-compassion. These qualities help children get back to living their lives more quickly after tough times.
- Give your child plenty of opportunities to play with others. This can be good for child mental health and wellbeing because it gives your child a chance to have fun, be active and interact with others.
- Help your child recognise, understand and manage emotions. For example, you could help your child explore emotions through play or do an emotions activity.
- Patiently and calmly help your child calm down from strong emotions.
- Do relaxation or thinking strategies with your child. You could try breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, positive thinking and mindfulness. If your child is distressed, you could try grounding to help your child calm down.
- Set up regular family routines. Routines are good for mental health because they help children feel safe and secure. And when routines include time for healthy food, physical activity and sleep, they can help with your child’s overall wellbeing.
It’s also a good idea to speak with your child’s preschool teacher about ways to support your child at preschool.
Looking after yourself when your child has depression
Although you might be focused on looking after your child, it’s important to look after your own health and wellbeing too. If you take care of yourself, you’ll be better able to care for your child.
Consider seeking professional support for yourself if stresses and worries about your child are affecting your everyday life. Your GP is a good person to talk with.
Here are more ways to get support:
- Call a parenting hotline to get free parenting advice.
- Call Lifeline on 131 114 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 for mental health support.
- Find local help and support in our Services & Support section.
- Visit your community health centre.
- Contact a psychologist through Australian Psychological Society – Find a Psychologist.
- Join a face-to-face or an online parent support group to connect with other parents in similar situations.