How to Spot Depression Symptoms in Children of All Ages

How do I know my child is depressed? What can I do if they are experiencing depression? Spotting depression symptoms in children and teens isn’t always easy, and it can be even harder to address. ChildSavers therapist, Mavis Mintaah, LCSW, CTS, explains signs of depression in kids, how to address depression with your children, and how to seek proper treatment.

Depression Symptoms in Younger Children (Ages 4 – 10)

Elementary age girl seeking help for depression

Depression symptoms are not isolated to joylessness or melancholy. In addition to unusual feelings of sadness, you may notice the following signs of depression in your elementary schooler:

  • Increase in irritability – Is your child becoming more easily agitated? Are they throwing temper tantrums often?
  • Increase in aggression – Is your elementary schooler yelling or showing aggressive behavior when they play? Is your child starting to hit others or you?
  • Withdrawal or lack of interest in normal activities – If your child usually engages in play regularly, are they becoming less interested in their toys or outdoor activities? Are they displaying a sense of wistfulness?
  • Change in appetite – Has your child stopped eating? Have they started to overeat or binge? Make sure they’re consuming healthy foods and drinking plenty of water as this can affect the way their brain processes emotions. A healthy gut = a healthier brain.
  • Change in sleeping patterns – This may be the most frustrating indicator of depression in your child(ren) because it can disrupt your sleep schedule too! Here are a few tips to handle irregular sleeping patterns in children, whether they’re not sleeping or oversleeping.

Depression Symptoms in Older Children (Ages 11 – 17)

Teenage boy coping with depression symptoms in a school classroom

Depression can be more difficult to detect in older children and teens (middle schoolers and high schoolers) because of the mood swings that come with this developmental age.

You can tell the difference between mood swings and depression if your teen is experiencing numerous symptoms, including:

  • Becoming more tearful or exhibiting frequent bouts of sadness
  • Appearing numb or empty (or verbally expressing these feelings)
  • Expressing feelings of loneliness
  • Increase in isolating behaviors (particularly with friends)
  • Anger outbursts and aggressive behaviors towards themselves or others
  • Feeling more irritable or easily agitated
  • A decline in grades or interest in school-based activities
  • A lack of concentration or motivation
  • Unusual lack of energy or exhaustion
  • A drastic change in their sleep cycle – staying up all night (5 hours of sleep or less) or oversleeping (10+ hours of sleep).

The Best Ways to Address Signs of Depression in Children

Mother confronting child about depression and seeking therapeutic treatment

If your child is exhibiting any of the symptoms above, we encourage you to address them with love. Ultimately, we want our children to build their own resilience to depression and take the necessary steps to cope.

  • Start by validating their feelings and experiences. It is so important to tell children and teens that depression is not their fault, especially if depression-related mental conditions run in your family. We can compare mental illness to physical ailments that must be addressed and treated.
  • Elevate the importance and normalcy of mental health. Mental health is just as important as our physical health. Normalizing discussions about mental wellbeing and taking care of our minds helps break stigmas. A healthy view of mental health can start with you and your children, and be passed down for generations to come.
  • Consult a mental health professional. After speaking with your child about potential mental health treatment, reach out to a local child or family therapist. Teletherapy, which can be performed on your phone or computer, is also becoming increasingly accessible and affordable.

Treatment for Depression in Children and Teens

child loving art therapy treatment for her depression

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Verywell defines cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) as a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps people learn how to identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that have a negative influence on behavior and emotions. In essence, this type of therapy helps children pinpoint what’s leading to their depression and what they can do about it.

Because children express their emotions in different ways and at different ages, therapists often use play and art therapy to treat depression. Play is recognized as the universal language of childhood. At ChildSavers, our licensed mental health clinicians incorporate trauma-informed practices into play and art therapy.

Play Therapy at ChildSavers

Play is a vehicle of expression that allows children to work through feelings and thoughts they’re holding onto. At our clinic, play therapy can take place in a sand tray with figurines, by banging on a drum, in our therapy garden, or in our puppet and dress-up room.

To learn more about our play therapists and their work with our clients, watch the video below.

Art Therapy

Art therapy is not about making something beautiful or learning a specific artistic technique. It is used to help children and teens visually identify their stressors, express themselves, and work through trauma. ChildSavers therapists observe children’s art and their artistic process – whether it’s with paint, crayons, play dough, chalk, or other mediums. Sometimes the process can tell us as much (or more) as the end product.

Depression Medication for Children and Teens

After screening, depression medicine may be coupled with therapy. ChildSavers psychiatrists are available to prescribe medicine to aid the therapeutic process on a case-by-case basis. Talk to your psychologist or doctor about side effects if you choose this dual-approach to help your children cope with depression.

Other helpful resources from ChildSavers:

This post is brought to you by ChildSavers therapist Mavis Mintaah, LCSW, CTS, and Annie Hedrick, our Marketing and Communications Officer. Born and raised in Ghana, West Africa, Mavis moved to the United States in the year 2000.  She joined the ChildSavers Immediate Response team in 2015 and provided trauma-informed care to our community children. Mavis currently works as a full-time outpatient therapist, delivering both face-to-face therapy and teletherapy.

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