Depression Among Children

Once twenty years ago, when I was just beginning to work with depression among children, a mother came in with her child for some help. Sydney, who was eight, appeared withdrawn and quiet. She had circles under her eyes and pale skin and looked sad.

This mother, we’ll call her Kathy, looked overwhelmed. She informed me, through several bouts of tears, that she tried the best she could to be a good mother and she’s not sure what’s happened.

She said her husband worked long hours sometimes, but that they always made time for each other and time for their child Sidney. She insisted there was no abuse, or violence or trauma in the house and had been no specific recent stressors. Kathy thought that she had done something to cause her child’s sadness.

Feeling Guilty

Kathy  told me Sidney was smart and in the past she had been well liked by her peers. Now however, the teachers were calling home to ask what was wrong. They reported Sidney looked like she was a sad child. She was not really interested in the other children or in her class work. Kathy vacillated between expressing great concern over her child’s sadness, and insisting she is generally okay. She had very mixed emotions and didn’t understand what had gone wrong.

After investigating some more, it was difficult to come up with any stressors or situations which could have triggered Sidney’s sadness. It literally appeared out of nowhere at the beginning of second grade.

In this case Sidney was experiencing depression. In fact three years ago, her mother experienced an episode of depression. It was so severe that her own mother had to come and live with her for three months to help with household duties and with raising Sidney. Sometimes kids whose family members who are depressed are just much more likely to get depressed themselves.

  • If you are the parent of a child with depression you may have some of the questions below. 
  • Why is my child so sad?
  • What have I done wrong as a mother or father?
  • What did she need that I didn’t give her?

These are some of the questions that Kathy asked.

If you have a child who is  depressed it is important for you to know that it is not necessarily your fault. Some children become  depressed just because they have a chemistry to be prone to depression. Usually, there are life stressors that contribute, however, that is not always the case. Sometimes stressors can be invisible to everyone but the sad child, for example, they may be overwhelmed by new academic stress, or peer stress.

In Sidney’s case, it turns out she had developed a fear of abandonment around her mother's own depression. No one had explained her mom's depression to her and she had come to believe that her mother just didn’t want to be her mother during the time she was sick. This had caused her to feel sad and rejected and eventually contributed to depression. She never verbalized her concerns or feelings to anyone and no one knew she felt this way.

Don't Ignore it!

Many people don’t know how to deal with depression among children. In fact, we didn't even believe depression among children could exist until the 90's.  Rather than  give it a name or call it a mental illness it is easier sometimes for people to pretend everything is ok, or ignore that depression has affected their family. It is very common that I will see children who are depressed in my therapy office, and find that their father or mother is depressed, but that they don’t even acknowledge or understand their own depression.

Sometimes the stressors that lead to a sad child’s depression are more obvious like a family illness, divorce, or several losses. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your parenting!

The important thing is to reach out for some help. Sad children can be helped tremendously by a skilled and caring therapist.

What's the difference between sadness and depression among children?

It is normal for a child to become sad if they have experienced something to make them sad. Sadness in and of itself doesn’t indicate depression. In fact, some children who are depressed show mostly anger and irritability.  A good way to tell if I child is depressed is if the mood and behavior  are interfering in their family, social or school life.

If a  child is no longer playing with peers, not doing as well in school, or not interacting in the way they did in the past with their family, then it is time consider it serious.

How do I know when to seek help for my child?

If you are wondering whether to seek help then it is likely  you need to. Even if a child is not depressed but experiencing pervasive sadness it is important to consider they may need help processing their feelings or that they may be stuck.  

Depression among children: A checklist for seeking help

Below are some things to consider when deciding whether seeking help for your child

  • Do you have a history of family depression?
  • Have other people commented on your child’s depression, and you have chosen to ignore it?
  • Are you or your spouse taking antidepressants?
  • Is your child’s sadness affecting their ability to function in school, with the family, or with their friends?
  • Is your sad child having trouble sleeping or a change in appetite?
  • Is your child angry and irritable more often than other children their age?
  • Do they cry frequently or tantrum?
  • Do they talk about death or dying or draw pictures about it?
  • Do you wonder constantly about if your child is too sad??
  • Have they stopped doing activities they previously seemed to enjoy (such as drawing or playing sports)
  • Are they unable to enjoy activities, get pleasure and excitement out things that other children their age get excited about?

If any of these things are true than please seek help. Depression is something that a trained therapist can help alleviate. There is nothing to be ashamed of or to blame yourself for.

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Medical information obtained from our website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.