About depression in children
It’s normal 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 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on for a long time without treatment, children can fall behind at school, lose confidence in themselves and become more withdrawn.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 with the 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 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 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
- 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 going so well academically
- 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 if you think they have depression.
Here’s what to do:
- See your GP, and get 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.
- 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 always let your child know that you’re there for them and want to understand what’s happening.
- If your child is five 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
- 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 mental health treatment plan for your child. If you have a plan, your child can get Medicare rebates for up to 20 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 or psychiatrist 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.
Think of yourself and your child’s health professionals as a team. Talk with the professionals about how you can support your child’s therapy at home.
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:
- 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 when they’re feeling depressed instead of dwelling on their feelings. For example, a trip to the park or spending time with friends.
- Manage your child’s stress and tension. Regular family routines that make time for exercise, relaxing and socialising with friends 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 deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualisations and mindfulness.
- Speak with your child’s teacher or school counsellor to find the best ways to support your child at school.
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 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 focus on 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.