Childhood Depression Symptoms


This page is meant to help you determine if your child might be suffering from depression. 

Prior to the 1970s, depression was typically viewed as an adult disorder because children were seen as too immature to have this disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)  used by clinicians and psychiatrists to diagnose psychiatric illnesses did not begin to represent children until the 1980's. ( Charles and Fazeli 2017)

By the 1990's we began to first recognize and fully accept  that depression existed in children under 10. 

Many of us who work with depression know that our clients report being depressed  as long as they can remember. Yet there is resistance to believing young children experience it.  Over the last 20 years we have learned not only preschool depression exists, but also, what it looks like, how we can treat it, how it changes preschoolers brains, it's course, and what it is associated with. 

Childhood Depression Symptoms may look much like symptoms of adult depression or they may look very different. Children have less ability to verbalize their feelings and are more likely to give us clues about their inner state through their behavior.

Unfortunately, the behavioral expression of childhood depression can result in adults viewing depressed children as having behavioral problems. Instead of being treated for mental illness, depressed children are often scolded, shamed and punished.

Imagine feeling depressed, lonely, generally bad about yourself and the world. It wouldn’t help you feel better to be told you are worthless, lazy, and hear the people you love constantly complain about you! This is, unfortunately so often the case for children who are depressed ( and actually adults too).  

Early identification and treatment of depression results in children living happier, more productive and successful lives. Yet most adults that encounter children do not understand what signs of depression in children look like.

Facts About Child Depression

  • Depression in children is highly correlated with academic and social problems, suicide and later substance abuse.
  • Children who have one episode of depression will more than likely have other episodes in childhood or depression that persists into adulthood.
  • Depression in children a serious problem, but if identified early its impact can be lessened.
  • Many adults I see in therapy tell me they wish they had learned the coping skills and techniques to manage depression as a child. They feel strongly if someone had recognized their behavior as a symptom of childhood depression they would be much better off today.
  • Most parents and doctors do not know or understand what signs of depression in children are.

Childhood Depression Symptoms

They are unpleasant to be around

One of the common childhood depression symptoms is an irritable mood. Think, for a moment, about how you behave when irritable. You may snap at your coworkers, friends or spouse. You are likely to lose your temper and show very little patience. Children who are irritable may be rude, disrespectful, and may refuse to do what you ask. They are less likely to follow the rules at school or at home and frequently talk back to parents and teachers.

They complain of boredom

A child who is bored may bother you, follow you around the house and demand that you entertain them.

They no longer like to do things they used to think were fun

A child experiencing depression will often stop enjoying the activities they were the most interested in.

They may display changes in eating patterns or appetite

These children may seem picky and whiny or complain about their food. Children I see often complain about how the food is “bad” or doesn’t taste right.

They may not want to get up or go to bed

Children may sleep more of less than normal. Behaviorally, this can translate into refusal to go to school or to go to bed.

They may have low energy

Depressed children may complain of feeling tired and lack the energy to complete the tasks they need to do at home and school. This can often cause children to behave in a way that can be misinterpreted as lazy. If parents or teachers describe a child as lazy I am immediately suspicious that the child is depressed.  Adults usually respond to this behavior by name calling “get your lazy self-up!” or punishing.

They have thoughts of worthlessness or guilty feelings

Children who are depressed will often make negative self-statements such as “I can't do this” or "I’m not good at anything". Busy parents often miss these statements or may be irritated by them. Younger children won’t attempt to complete tasks or activities because of fear that they are not good enough to do so. Kids manifesting  these signs of depression in children may also blame themselves for things that they have nothing to do with.

They can’t concentrate

Kids with this childhood symptoms of depression may get labeled as ADHD! Then they are given stimulants which can have a disastrous effect if the child has bipolar disorder.

Other symptoms

Other childhood depression symptoms  include unpleasant behaviors such as tantrums, inability to handle frustration, complaining or crying. At school depressed children may be hostile or aggressive, display a drop-in school performance, or may frequently go to the school nurse.

If you think your child is exhibiting these symptoms, and you have a family history of depression, then it is very likely that your child is depressed. In this case, you should get treatment.

In 1998 Joan Luby got the first grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study preschool depression. Very young children were among the last group to be studied for depression and it is still poorly recognized in this population. 

    Symptoms of depression in preschoolers
  • Anhedonia

The symptom most specific preschool childhood depression symptom is  anhedonia. This is defined as the inability to find pleasure or joy in previously enjoyed activities.

  • In preschoolers this looks like NOT WANTING TO PLAY WITH THEIR TOYS or to do things that used to be fun. 


  • Sadness and irritability
  • Changes in appetite and/or sleep problems 
  • Change in activity 
  • Low energy
  • Low self esteem
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Easily giving up
  • Negative Self statements
  • Self Blame 
  • Somatic symptoms ( aches and pains)
  • Temper-tantrums

and expression of themes of death and suicide in play and with words.

  • Preschoolers who are depressed might cry and whine often and they also may be very irritable and angry. 

Childhood Depression Symptoms: Facts about preschoolers

Most preschool children with depression do not get accurately diagnosed because childhood depression symptoms in this group are not accurately captured by the  criteria in our manuals.


Early intervention is key

  • Children who have high maternal support during preschool period have have higher hippocampal volume and a higher growth trajectory later of their hippocampus but this is not seen during maternal support during the later elementary school years.The hippocampus is a part of the brain that performs functions  specifically helpful to helping regulate depression. It appears that there is a sensitive time during preschool years where maternal support can help support the growth of this part of the brain. 
  • Caregiver ,support, nurturance, and attunement is key to the changes in the brain that are witnessed in children who suffer from depression. Although there is not one particular profile that a depressed preschooler fits, programs that support and foster preschoolers in the community and their caregiver may help mediate effects of depression.    


Preschoolers do not grow out of depression. 

  • Depression is considered life long like OCD
  • Children with Preschool Depression will often suffer recurrent depressive episodes
  • New research shows that preschool children who are diagnosed with  depression experience changes in their brains just as do adults. This new evidence is one of the pieces that finally convinced the scientific community that it was a real diagnosis in young children. 
  • The earlier the diagnosis the better the likelihood we can get help for a child and that may be associated with a more positive long term outcome, like it is for children with autism
  • Specifically the experience of child depression is associated with the change in trajectory of cortical grey matter volume and cortical grey matter thickness


If your preschooler is has childhood depression symptoms, you should get your child therapy

  • Depressed preschoolers don't get better on their own
  • Depression in preschoolers is a specific syndrome just like it is in adults
  • Preschoolers with depression are four times as likely to have an anxiety disorder in later childhood
  • Anhedonia (loss of interest in toys) is a unique marker of depression not associate with any other diagnosis
  • Talk therapy is ineffective with children who are in preschool
  • Play therapy although more effective than talk therapy does not have compelling evidence of long term effectiveness
  • A mother's depression can impact a child's depression significantly, Moms should get their own help
  • A therapist should always be involving you in you young children's therapy
  • NEW promising therapy called PCIT ED is available. 

Leave childhood depression symptoms for treatment of child depression

Leave childhood depression symptoms for depression among children

Learn about social support to prevent depression in children

Learn about bipolar disorder in children

Learn about parenting bipolar

Learn about teens with bipolar disorder

Learn about stress in childhood

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Medical information obtained from this 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.