What is depression in children?

It’s normal for children to feel down, be cranky or think negatively – this is just part of growing up. Children have to go through a range of feelings to learn how to deal with them.

But childhood depression is more than just feeling sad, blue or low. Depression in children is a serious illness, which can affect children’s physical and mental health.

It can be hard to tell the difference between sadness and depression in children aged 3-8 years. But you can start by thinking about:

  • how long your child has been feeling down
  • how negative your child’s thinking is
  • how interested your child is in daily activities
  • how big an effect the thoughts and feelings are having on your child’s everyday life.

You know your child best. If you feel that something isn’t quite right, see your GP.

If your child is depressed, it can be hard for your child to learn, make friends and make the most of daily life. If depression goes on for a long time without treatment, the way your child learns and grows can also be affected. Children who have the right care can recover from depression.

If your child says anything about suicide or self-harm – like ‘I wish I was dead’ or ‘I don’t want to wake up anymore’ – you should take this very seriously. Seek professional help straight away from your GP or ring 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 childhood depression

If you notice any of the following signs in your child, and these signs last longer than about two weeks, your child might have depression.

You might notice changes in your child’s emotions or behaviour. For example, your child:

  • seems sad or unhappy most of the time
  • is aggressive, won’t do what you ask most of the time, or has a lot of temper tantrums
  • says negative things about himself – for example, ‘I’m not good at anything’ or ‘No-one at school likes me’
  • feels guilty – for example, he might say things like, ‘It’s always my fault’
  • is afraid or worried a lot
  • keeps saying his tummy or his head hurts, and these problems don’t seem to have a physical or medical cause.

You might also notice changes in your child’s interest in or energy for everyday activities. For example, your child:

  • doesn’t have as much energy as she usually does
  • doesn’t want to be around friends and family
  • isn’t interested in playing or doing other things she used to enjoy
  • has problems sleeping, including nightmares
  • has problems concentrating or remembering things.

If your child is at school, you might also notice your child:

  • not going so well academically
  • not taking part in school activities
  • having problems fitting in at school or getting along with other children.

Depression affects children’s thinking, mood and behaviour. Children experiencing depression often feel negative about themselves, their situation and their future. They can feel really hopeless.

It can be really frustrating if your child is behaving in challenging ways or doesn’t want to be around you. But if depression is the cause, your child needs you to support and guide him towards help.

Getting help for childhood depression

Depression doesn’t go away on its own. Here’s what to do if you’re concerned your child might have depression:

  • Make an appointment to see your GP, and get a referral to a paediatrician, psychiatrist or psychologist. These specially trained health professionals can diagnose depression in children. If you’re eligible, Medicare will cover most of the costs involved.
  • 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.
  • If your child is having trouble talking to you about how she’s feeling, you could ask her if she wants to talk to another trusted adult. But always let your child know that you’re there for her and want to understand what’s happening.
  • If your child is old enough, he can talk with a Kids Helpline counsellor by calling 1800 551 800, or using the Kids Helpline email counselling service or the Kids Helpline web counselling service.

By finding early help for your child with depression, you can:

  • help your child get better, faster
  • reduce the risk that your child will have depression later in life
  • help your child grow up healthy and well.

Managing depression

Professional support 
If your child has depression, you and your child might work with a psychologist, paediatrician or psychiatrist for a while.

Your child’s psychologist or psychiatrist might use cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). This is a type of talking therapy that can help children change unhelpful or unhealthy thinking habits and behaviour.

Your child’s therapist might use other approaches as well, like play therapy, parent therapy or family therapy.

These therapies can help your child learn to think more positively and get better at dealing with challenges. This means she’s less likely to have depression again.

If the problem is serious, your doctor might talk with you about your child trying medication to help with the symptoms.

What you can do at home
As well as working with mental health professionals, here are some simple and effective ways that you can help your child:

  • If your child is having negative thoughts, you can model positive ways of thinking. For example, you can say things like, ‘I really enjoy it when we do this’, ‘That was fun!’ or ‘I knew I could do it’.
  • Manage your child’s stress and tension by making regular time for relaxing activities that your child enjoys. Regular family routines can also help to cut down stress.
  • If you have a smartphone or tablet, look into apps that can help your child learn relaxation strategies. These go through exercises that focus on deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualisations and mindfulness.
  • Make time to talk with your child and listen to how he’s feeling. You could do this when you’re making dinner together, reading a book together, going for a walk, driving somewhere or playing together at home.
  • Think of yourself and your child’s health professionals as a team. Talk with them about how you can be involved in any therapy your child is having.
  • If your child is at school, make an appointment to speak with her class teacher or school counsellor. Working together with school staff will help you find the best ways to support your child at school.

If your child has depression, he might not be keen to get back into seeing friends, doing physical activity or just having fun. But doing fun and active things can be good for him. You can encourage him to have a go, even if he starts small – for example, by spending half an hour with friends.

Looking after yourself

It’s not your fault if your child develops depression.

It can be really hard for you to see your child feeling upset, sad or withdrawn for a long time. In families, the way one person is feeling and behaving can affect other family members.

Although it’s easy to get caught up in looking after your child, it’s important to look after your own health and wellbeing too. Consider seeking professional help for yourself if stresses and worries are affecting your everyday life. Your GP is a good person to talk with.

If you’re physically and mentally well, you’ll be better able to care for your child.