We all feel sad and down sometimes – maybe things don’t go our way, we get hurt, or we lose someone close to us – and children are no different.

But having depression is more than just being sad. Depression affects the way we think, and how we see ourselves and our future. Along with feeling sad or irritable, it may seem that nothing is worthwhile and that things will never get better.

Depression can stop kids enjoying the things they normally like doing, or taking part in their usual activities.

Signs of depression in children

Children often find it difficult to explain how they’re feeling, especially if they’re experiencing depression. However, there are a few key signs and symptoms to look out for – particularly if they happen together over several weeks and are out of character for your child.

Children with depression may:

  • have low energy and be difficult to motivate
  • lose interest easily in an activity they usually enjoy
  • have difficulty listening and concentrating on tasks
  • make negative comments about themselves
  • withdraw from social situations, not want to spend time with friends
  • look for what’s wrong rather than see the positives in situations
  • be very difficult to please
  • be irritable, agitated, easily annoyed or upset
  • seem sad and cry easily and be difficult to soothe
  • either have no interest in food or overeat
  • have problems going to sleep or staying asleep, waking early, or sleeping a lot

Because the symptoms of depression are often characterised by negative behaviour such as irritability or whining, it’s easy to feel annoyed and to blame or punish the child for their behaviour. This can result in other signs of depression being missed.

Other things to look out for

Depression affects children’s thinking as well as their mood and behaviour. They may think they’re worthless or that things will never get better. Some kids also have thoughts of suicide.

If your child talks about taking their own life or hurting themselves, it’s important to take this very seriously. Kids sometimes use this as a way of describing their distress rather than an intention to harm themselves – either way, they need urgent support. 

What you can do to help

If you’ve noticed that a child you care about doesn’t seem themselves, the first step is to talk about what’s going on and how they’re feeling. If they reply with a ‘dunno’, suggest some feeling words and see if any hit the mark with them.

Let your child know that it’s OK to ask for help and that you’re ready to listen to whatever they want to say. If they’re distressed about a particular situation, you can help them to solve the problem or find ways yourself to improve the situation.

You could also try doing something fun, getting outside and doing some exercise, or doing something special together. 

Provide time and space to talk

Make time and space for your child to talk to you – this works best when you can be unhurried and uninterrupted. Kids often find it easier to talk when they’re doing something with you. Ordinary activities like playing with you at home, going on a shopping trip, or going for a long drive might help them to open up.

Listen openly, without judgement

You’re trying to create a space where your child can talk to you about anything, so being judgemental or cutting in too soon to offer advice is a sure fire way of shutting this down. Let your child have whatever emotion they need to express what’s on their mind. Listening carefully and asking questions before responding helps to show your child you understand them. 

Revisit the problem

When the child shares a problem or negative experience, gently ask whether there might be another explanation for things happening the way they did.  Try to help them see that it’s not as awful as they might think, and work on some problem-solving strategies together. 

Keep a focus on normal routines and activities

When a child is experiencing depression, their thinking can get clouded by lots of negatives. The more they dwell on problems and issues, the bigger these become. Activities and everyday routines can help distract kids from negative thinking patterns.

Get social

Spending time with friends can help to reduce unhappy feelings – it helps to know you’re liked and appreciated. Friends are also a great distraction and can suggest better ways of thinking about situations. If your child seems reluctant to spend time with friends, help them start small – an hour playing with a friend, or suggest a fun activity that doesn’t require too much talking, like throwing a ball or watching a movie.

Keep active and have fun

Blow off some steam and bust stress with some physical activity. Find something your child likes to do – from throwing a Frisbee to roller blading; playing catch to rock climbing.
Seeking professional support

If your child’s change of mood is very severe or goes on for a few weeks without improving, it’s time to do something about it. Don’t leave it and assume things will get better on their own. Seeking help early for your child is the best thing you can do.

Find out about support options for children
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Get immediate support

If you’re concerned that your child might hurt themselves, it’s important to act immediately. Call your doctor, mental health crisis service, or go with them to your local hospital’s emergency department. In an emergency, call triple zero (000).

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