What Does Depression Look Like In Children?

Persistent sadness. Crying about nothing. Depression isn’t just a condition for adults. Learn to recognize what’s normal behavior, and what could be signs of something more serious.

A sad girl with a hand on her face has Bipolar Disorder, which can occur in children with ADHD
A sad girl with a hand on her face has Bipolar Disorder, which can occur in children with ADHD

The most common mental disorder in the U.S., depression was considered an adult diagnosis for decades. Today, we know that depression affects about 2 percent of children over the age of 6, and roughly 5 percent for adolescents and teens. Depression is among the leading causes of suicide, which claims the lives of nearly 14 American teens every day. And the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that nearly half of all kids with ADHD also suffer from conditions like depression, learning disabilities, and anxiety disorders.

Early detection and treatment is critical for children living with depression. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), parents and teachers should be on the alert for symptoms including:

  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness, and crying
  • Decreased interest in activities; or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities
  • Hopelessness
  • Persistent boredom; low energy
  • Social isolation, poor communication
  • Low self esteem and guilt
  • Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Poor concentration
  • A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home
  • Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self destructive behavior

[Screener: Is Your Child Depressed?]

Symptoms at Home

As the list of symptoms above demonstrates, symptoms of depression in children can look a lot like the symptoms of ADHD, signs of a learning disability, or puberty and teen moodiness. In addition, parents may mistake the misbehavior that accompanies these symptoms with a troublesome phase or growing pains. However, if you ask a child why she is acting out, you might discover it’s because she is unhappy or sad. The AACAP advises parents to look for the following warning signs at home:

  • Difficulty following and communicating your instructions
  • Frequent tearfulness or crying
  • Emotional sensitivity that sparks huge blowups over small issues
  • Frequent threats to run away from home
  • A major change in eating habits
  • A sudden loss of interest in Instagram, Snapchat, Minecraft, or other social online activities that brought joy

A child who used to enjoy going to birthday parties and inviting friends over might start spending more time alone if she’s suffering from depression. A depressed teen might say he wishes he were dead, or begin abusing drugs or alcohol to escape bad feelings.

[Anxiety? Depression? Or ADHD? It Could Be All Three]

Symptoms at School

Depression is more than just being bored in class, or disliking a teacher. Some signs of depression at school can be:

  • Decreased interest in after-school activities your child used to enjoy
  • Sudden change in aptitude of a favorite subject (e.g., used to be a math whiz, now avoids it all costs)
  • Sudden drop in grades
  • Withdrawal from friend group
  • Apathy about the future
  • Extreme sensitivity to failure or rejection from peers
  • Frequent trips to the school nurse for headaches or stomach aches
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
  • More trips to the principal’s office

If you think your child might be depressed, talk to your child about life at school and home, and ask about bullying. Also talk with your child’s pediatrician, and try to determine if psychotherapy will help. Any thoughts of suicide should be dealt with as an emergency. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents aged 15 to 24 years.

[How to Treat Depression]

If you witness one or more of these symptoms for two weeks or longer, see a medical or mental-health professional for an evaluation.