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 it might be more than sadness if:

  • your child has been feeling down for more than a few weeks
  • your child’s thinking seems more negative than usual
  • your child seems to have lost interest in or energy for daily activities
  • sad thoughts and feelings are stopping your child from enjoying life.

You know your child best. If you feel that something isn’t 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. But 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 depression in children

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.

Changes in your child’s emotions or behaviour
You might notice that 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.

Changes in your child’s interest in everyday activities
You might notice that 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.

Changes in your child’s behaviour or academic performance at school
If your child is at school, you might also notice that your child:

  • isn’t going so well academically
  • isn’t taking part in school activities
  • has 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.

What to do if you’re worried about depression in children

Depression doesn’t go away on its own. You need to help your child if you’re worried she has depression.

Here’s what to do:

  • 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 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 he’s feeling, you could ask him if he wants to talk to another trusted adult. But always let your child know that you’re there for him and want to understand what’s happening.
  • If your child is old enough, she 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.

Your GP will probably talk with you about a GP Mental Health Treatment Plan for your child. Getting a Plan doesn’t always mean your child has a serious problem. But if you have a Plan, you can get Medicare rebates for up to 10 sessions with a psychologist. You can also get Medicare rebates for visits to a paediatrician or psychiatrist.

Managing depression in children: 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 relaxation, mindfulness, 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 he’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.

Managing depression in children: support 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 she’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 his 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, she 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 her. You can encourage her to have a go, even if she starts small – for example, by spending half an hour with friends.

Looking after yourself when your child has depression

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.

Talking to other parents can also be a great way to get support. You can connect with other parents in similar situations by joining a face-to-face or an online parent support group.