About depression in children
It’s common for children to feel down, be cranky or think negatively – this is part of healthy development and learning to manage emotions. But childhood depression is more than just feeling sad, blue or low.
Depression in children is a mental health problem that affects children’s thinking, mood and behaviour. Children experiencing depression often feel negative about themselves, their situation and their future.
If your child has depression, 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on for a long time without treatment, children can fall behind at school, lose confidence in themselves and become more withdrawn.
Children who have the right care can recover from depression. Your GP can connect you and your child with professionals who can help. And your love and support also plays a big part in helping your child recover.
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 seriously. Seek professional help straight away from your GP or your local child and adolescent mental health service, or ring Lifeline 131 114. If you’re really worried about your child or yourself, call 000 and ask for help, or go to the nearest 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 2 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 irritable, cranky or aggressive, won’t do what you ask most of the time, or has a lot of temper tantrums
- says negative things about themselves – for example, ‘I’m not good at anything’ or ‘No-one at school likes me’
- feels guilty – for example, your child might say ‘It’s always my fault’
- is afraid or worried a lot
- keeps saying their tummy or 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 they usually do
- doesn’t want to be around friends and family
- isn’t interested in playing or doing things they used to enjoy
- has problems sleeping, including nightmares
- is eating differently – for example, they’re eating more or less food than usual
- has problems concentrating, remembering things or making simple decisions.
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 doing as well academically as they used to
- isn’t taking part in school activities
- has problems fitting in at school or getting along with other children.
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.
Here’s what to do:
- See your GP, and get a referral to a paediatrician, psychiatrist or psychologist, who can diagnose and treat depression in children.
- Ask your GP about a referral to a mental health social worker or counsellor.
- 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 5 years old or older, they 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
- help your child grow up healthy and well
- reduce the risk that your child will have depression later in life.
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.
Managing depression in children: professional support
Your child’s psychologist, psychiatrist, mental health social worker or counsellor might use cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to help your child change unhelpful or unhealthy thinking habits and behaviour.
Your child’s therapist might use other approaches like relaxation, mindfulness, play therapy, parent therapy or family therapy to help your child learn to think more positively and deal with challenges. This means your child will be less likely to have depression again.
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 children: support at home
Support at home is important for your child’s recovery from depression at home. Here are some simple and effective ideas:
- Give your child plenty of love, affection and positive attention. For example, make time to talk with your child and listen to their feelings. You could do this when you’re making dinner together or going for a walk.
- Gently encourage your child to do something they would normally enjoy – for example, a trip to the park or spending time with friends.
- Offer your child healthy food and encourage healthy eating habits.
- 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.
- Work on your child’s resilience and self-compassion. These qualities help children get back to living their lives more quickly after tough times.
- Manage your child’s stress and tension. Regular family routines that make time for exercising, relaxing and socialising can help. Getting enough sleep can also reduce your child’s stress levels.
- Look for apps that can help your child learn relaxation strategies like breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises and mindfulness exercises.
- Patiently and calmly help your child calm down from strong emotions. If your child is distressed, you could try grounding.
- Speak with your child’s teacher or school counsellor to find the best ways to support your child at school.
If your child is having trouble talking to you about how they’re feeling, you could ask if they want to talk to another trusted adult. But it’s important to keep letting your child know that you’re there for them and you want to understand what’s happening.
When siblings and other family members know that your child has depression, they can help by being accepting and compassionate. But before you tell other people, ask your child whether this is OK. It’s important for your child to give permission for you to tell others.
Looking after yourself when children have depression
Although you might be focused on looking after your child, you’ll be better able to do this if you also look after your own health and wellbeing too.
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.