Children are often unable to explain how they are feeling, especially when experiencing depression.

When adults are depressed, feelings of sadness are often very obvious. In children, irritability may be more noticeable than sadness.

Children with depression are often hard to engage and motivate, their low mood may be constant. They may cry and whinge and be very difficult to soothe.

What are the signs of depression in children?

In diagnosing depression mental health professionals look for key signs and symptoms in children’s behaviour.

When several of the following signs or symptoms occur together and are out of character for the child, they indicate that the child needs assessment and support from a mental health professional with experience treating children with depression.

Symptoms and signs include:

  • loss of pleasure
  • apathy
  • fatigue
  • psychomotor retardation (slowed movements)
  • restlessness
  • sadness
  • guilt
  • social withdrawal

As well as behaviours that can be observed, children with depression have thoughts of self-criticism and helplessness. For example, children experiencing depression may think their parents or carers favour other children in the family or that they are useless.

Some children also have thoughts of suicide. It is important to take seriously any talk about wanting to die or hurt oneself from a child of any age. Whether such talk represents a clear intention of suicide or is a way of expressing feelings associated with depression, it indicates a high level of distress that requires attention.

What puts children at risk of depression?

There are many factors that can put children at risk of depression:

  • Children who experience depressive symptoms often live in families where other members have also experienced depression. This may be due to a number of possible factors, for instance family history (genetic factors). Alternatively it may be that living with adults who are depressed may change how parents or carers and children relate. A third possibility is that the stress affecting the child affects the whole family.
  • Stressful events such as a death of a parent, parental divorce, changing school or being bullied may trigger an episode of depression in children.

What helps to protect children from depression?

Children with easy temperaments, who are able to regulate or get control over their emotions, are less likely to develop depression.

Children can also learn skills for managing their emotions, and this helps to build up protective factors.

Having warm and supportive relationships helps to provide protection from depression. Parents and carers, school staff and friends who provide support can help to buffer the effect of life stresses. They also provide models for children to learn problem solving and coping skills.

Four general principles for assisting children with depression

1. Be supportive and make time to listen

Let the child know that it is okay to ask for help and that you are ready to listen to whatever he/she wants to say. If a particular situation has caused him/her distress, help the child to solve the problem or find ways yourself to improve the situation.

2. Keep a focus on normal routines and activities

When children experience depression their thinking gets clouded by lots of negatives. The more they think about them, the bigger they become.

Encouraging children to keep up with normal routines and activities helps to distract them from negative thinking patterns.

3. Keep active

Depression slows down children’s bodies as well as their minds. Keeping active helps to restore physical health and improves children’s mental health and wellbeing.

4. Seek professional help

When concerned about a child who may have depression, take prompt action to seek help. Getting help early is best.

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