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Childhood depression. What does it look like?

Childhood depression. What does it look like?

We applaud the efforts of those who are seeking to remove the stigma of mental health issues and hope that with increased awareness many more kids and teens get the help they deserve.

More and more children are being diagnosed with depression at earlier ages. How can you tell if the change in your son or daughter is down to just being teenagers or is an indication of something more severe?

The following is general information and should not take the place of a medical diagnosis, but is provided to help you understand a little bit more what childhood depression may look like. This article covers the general signs of depression in children and teens.

What is depression

Depression, in its simplest term, is a mood disorder that removes the joy out of life, making life seem unbearable for your son or daughter. Depression is a serious medical problem and needs to be treated as such. If you believe you child is suffering from depression, get them help as soon as possible.

What does depression in children and teens look like?

Depression is not going to look the same in every child. However there are some symptoms that show up in most children with depression.

In a child

Childhood depression isn’t very common, but it does happen. Depression in children manifests itself differently in different age groups. Very young children with depression may lack energy, show little emotion, have trouble sleeping, or become withdrawn from family and friends. These symptoms may also indicate other medical conditions so talk to your doctor if you are worried.

If your child is in grade school, they may experience increased headaches or stomachaches and lose interest in activities that once interested them. Some grade-school age children with severe depression may see or hear things that aren’t there.

In a teenager

The teenager years can be a hard time for many. Issues such as peer pressure, online bullying, changing bodies, and academic pressures can be overwhelming and cause normal ups and downs. Depression, on the other hand, goes much deeper than normal mood swings, bouts of melancholy, or not liking high school. Teen depression is overwhelming with many teens feeling unable to go about their normal day-to-day life. Teen depression has the ability to effect every aspect of a teenager’s life as it affects how a teen think, act, and behave. Beyond overwhelming sadness, anger, and despair, depression in teens can lead to serious problems—alcohol and drug abuse, self-loathing, pregnancy, violence, and even suicide.

Although depression is highly treatable, very few teens suffering from depression get the help they need. This is due to a number of factors. First, there is a stigma associated with depression and mental illness and many teens are reluctant to get the help they need. Second, teens often need the help of parents, adults, and teachers to recognize the symptoms and get them the treatment they need. As such, it’s important for you to recognize the warning signs and symptoms so you are able to get your child back on track with the help they need.

To figure out if your teen is just “being a teenager” or is actually depressed, it’s important for you to consider how long the symptoms have been present, how severe the symptoms are, and how different your teen is acting from his or her normal self. Long-lasting changes in personality, mood, or behavior are red flags of a deeper problems.

If your teen has a low mood for longer than two weeks with no signs of improvement you may want to seek professional help for your child.

What depression is not

Many people think that sadness and depression are the same thing. In most cases, sadness is different from depression. Sadness doesn’t imply being disinterested from things, where depression does. While there are times when sadness can develop into depression, it’s the exception.

Where does depression come from

Children, teens, and even adults experience depression for a number of reasons that can be triggered by both biological and environmental factors. Some teens get depressed due to genes, family background, or stress. For others it’s due to a medical or psychiatric problem, substance abuse, or due to physical or emotional abuse. The loss of a parent or grandparent, or another type of traumatic situation may trigger depression that manifests itself months after the traumatic event. Lastly, some teens become depressed for reasons that are never known.

Symptoms of depression

Common symptoms for teens include irritable or angry moods, unexplained aches or pains, extreme sensitive to criticism, and withdrawing from some, but not all people. To compound the problem, not all teenagers exhibit the same symptoms or show signs of sadness or withdraw from others.

Emotional changes

  • A constant feeling of sadness or hopelessness
  • Crying spells for no apparent reasons
  • Irritability, anger, or hostility, over small matters
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Increased restlessness and agitation
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Increased sense of guilt over things that may not be their fault
  • Lack of enthusiasm or motivation, especially in regards to activities or hobbies they once enjoyed
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering details
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Slowed thinking, speaking, or body movements
  • Self-harm
  • Difficulty making decisions—especially normally everyday decisions
  • Increased worry
  • Seeing the worst in themselves or others
  • Feeling their emotions are all over the place
  • Uncharacteristically sloppy appearance

Many rebellious and unhealthy behaviors in teenagers are actually indications of a teen’s depression. The following are typical ways in which teens “act out” to cope with emotional pain.

  • Problems at school: Low energy and concentration can lead to poor attendance, drop in grades, or frustration with school work.
  • Running away: Many depressed teens either run away or talk about running away. These attempts are usually a cry for help.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse: Teens may turn to alcohol or drug use as a way to “self-medicate” which only makes the problems worse.
  • Low self-esteem: Depression can trigger feelings of shame, unworthiness, and ugliness.
  • Internet addiction: Many teens may go online as a way to escape their problems, but excessive time online only increases their isolation.
  • Reckless behavior: Depressed teens engage in dangerous or “high-risk” behavior such as high speed driving, drug and alcohol abuse, and unsafe sex.
  • Violence: Some teenage boys—especially those who have been the victims of bullying—become violent as self-hatred and a wish to die can erupt into violent or homicidal rage.

Teen depression is also associated with a number of other mental health problems, including eating disorders and self-injury.

How is depression treated?

If the symptoms seem persistent, get your child to a doctor or trained professional as soon as possible. No, we’re very serious about this. They need professional help. Without treatment, symptoms aren’t likely to get better on their own. In fact, they’ll most likely worsen.

Doctors diagnose depression by looking at both the signs and symptoms. The symptoms are reported by the individual, while signs are normally observations made by others.

As you know, talking to a teenager about important issues is difficult. Some days you’re lucky if you get a grunt in response to a question. Many doctors will prescribe a psychiatrist as part of the treatment plan as it’s important for you child to open up so that medical professional are able to more effectively treat your son or daughter.


Treatment for depression may include medication, addressing medical conditions that may be intensifying symptoms, changes in lifestyle, therapy, or a combination of multiple treatments.

With different types of treatment and medication available it’s important you do your homework and talk to your doctors about what course of action would be the most beneficial for your teen. Because the treatment course may involve multiple doctors, make sure all medical personal are kept in kept in the loop and know what is going on with your son’s or daughter’s treatment.


Many teens are given medication. It may take from one to six weeks for a teen to begin to feel better. During this time, a doctor will assess if the medication is working. If it isn’t, they may up the dosage, or change the prescription. Once your teen starts feeling better, they may be tempted to stop the medication. Stopping the medication too early may cause their symptoms to return.

Your teens may experience the following side effects: dry mouth, sexual dysfunction, nausea, tremor, insomnia, blurred vision, dizziness, and constipation.

Recent studies have show that, in some cases, suicidal tendencies are increased by antidepressant use so watch your teen extra carefully!

Teens and suicide

Seriously depressed teens think about, speak of, or make suicide attempts. An alarming number of suicide attempts are successful so any suicidal thoughts or actions should be taken seriously! There are many resources for teens dealing with suicide. For a list of US resources, click here.

For the overwhelming majority of suicidal teens, depression or another psychological disorder plays a major part in their desire to remove the hopelessness from their life. Depressed teens who abuse alcohol or drugs, increase their suicide risk.

While more women tend to be more depressed than men, men are 3 times more likely to commit suicide.

Suicide warnings in teens

  • Talking or joking about suicide
  • Saying things like “I’d be better off dead,” “dying is the only way out,” “I wish I could disappear forever”
  • Speaking positively about death
  • Romanticizing death by saying things like “I would be loved more if I’m dead”
  • Writing poems, songs, stories about death or suicide
  • Engaging in reckless behavior
  • Having lots of accidents that result in injury
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family as if for the last time
  • Seeking out weapons, pills, or other ways to kill themselves

How can I help my teen?

Talking to your teen

As soon as you suspect a teenager may be suffering from depression, speak up right away. Even if the issues you’re concerned about isn’t depression, the behaviors you’re seeing in your teenager are probably still signs of problems and need to be discussed. When you talk to your teen, be specific in the behaviors you’ve seen that worry you. Many teens will feel emotional over this issue, so make sure you discuss your concerns with your teen in a loving and non-judgmental way. While you’ll want to fix the problem right away, it may be helpful to just listen as you our teen may be reluctant to open up as he or she may feel ashamed or afraid of being misunderstood. Your teen may also claim that nothing is wrong and offer no explanation to their behavior change. If that happens, always trust your instinct as denial is a strong emotion that can be hiding your child’s ability to recognize symptoms.

You teen may not want to talk to you. If that’s the case, make sure they talk to someone. You can find hotline resources here.

How can I listen?

It can take skills to be able to learn how to listen effectively to your children. We recommend you watch the skill of Effective Communication and follow the steps.


  • Offer support: Make sure your teen knows you are there for him or her—fully and unconditionally.
  • Don’t ask a lot of questions: Asking too many questions can make your teen feel they are being patronized or are suffocating and can cause them to turn them away even more.
  • Be persistent: If your teen shuts you out the first time, don’t give up. It can be difficult for your teen to talk about depression so be respectful of their comfort level.
  • Be gentle: Emphasize your concern and willingness to listen.
  • Listen without lecturing: Resist any urge to pass judgment or criticize once your teenager does opens up.
  • Avoid offering unsolicited advice or ultimatums.
  • Validate feelings: Don’t try to talk your teen out of his or her depression. Especially if his or her feelings or concerns appear silly or irrational to you. By acknowledging the pain and sadness, you will let your teen know you take his or her emotions seriously.









Depression: Your Questions Answered by Melvyn Lurie, MD DK Publishing, 375 Hudson Street, NY, 2007.