Is My Child Depressed or Experiencing Normal Sadness?

By Dr. Erin Kardel, NeuroScience

Everyone has their ups and downs, but real depression is different from normal sadness or “blues.” Children who are depressed cannot merely “pull themselves together” or “snap out of it” because if it were really that easy, then they probably would. Depression can be caused by any combination of factors including a genetic predisposition, life events, loss, or biochemical changes. During adolescence, in particular, spotting depression can be challenging for parents because of the tendency to determine that behavior is normal moodiness associated with development.

It is important to understand what depression looks like since symptoms such as negative thinking can lead to decreased self-esteem, trouble in relationships, low grades, and potentially more serious concerns. Many can still function with depression, but that does not mean that they are not suffering internally which is why it important to get them the help if it is needed.

Signs of depression:
Symptoms vary in children and teenagers and individuals display different symptoms at different times but there are common signs to be aware of to assess if something more serious is going on. Generally, there are emotional (i.e., sadness), cognitive (i.e., concentration), physical (i.e., lethargic), and behavioral signs of depression (i.e., isolation). Any of these signs can occur in those who are not depressed, but when seen together, nearly every day, they are red flags.

• Persistent feelings of sadness which last for a period of at least 2 weeks
• Feeling hopeless and helpless about the future
• Social withdrawal, isolation (including isolation from friends and family)
• Increased crying episodes, looking tearful and sad to others
• Increase or decrease in both sleep and appetite
• Feeling lethargic, low energy, and unable to do simple daily activities (i.e., daily hygiene)
• Loss of interest in usual activities that they enjoy (i.e., spending time with friends, hobbies)
• Feeling excessive guilt, low self-esteem
• Increased irritability or anger
• Poor focus and concentration
• Emotional lability or apathy
• Negative and pessimistic thinking
• Engaging in risky behaviors (i.e., substance use or abuse)
• Not caring about what happens (i.e., low grades in school)
• Talk of self-harm, death, or suicide

What can you do as a parent?
As a parent, here is what you can do if you recognize any of these signs and are concerned about your child.

• Talk to your child about their feelings and educate them on what depression is. It is important to listen and not minimize what they are experiencing. For those who have never experienced depression, they may not know what to call what they are feeling. This helps give it a name so they can do something with it.
• It is often helpful to let them know that they are not alone in feeling this way so they do not feel stigmatized or bad for feeling the way that they do. Provide encouragement and support.
• Help your child to recognize any triggers for their depression so that they can better understand what impacts their mood. Triggers may include certain people, places, or thoughts.
• When someone is depressed, they are typically not looking at life through the same lens and therefore, thinking can become more distorted and negative. Our perception of the world around us shifts when we are experiencing emotional distress and it is important to help your child to recognize how the brain makes those changes and to challenge negative thinking.
• If your child does not have the tools to cope with negative emotions, help them to learn how to break down problems, get perspective, and utilize relaxation strategies.
• Help them to see that thoughts and feelings change. Depression can make someone feel stuck and like life is never going to get better. You can help them take action, look for options, and make small steps towards feeling better.
• Talk to them about maintaining a healthy lifestyle including getting adequate sleep, a balanced diet, managing stress, regular exercise, and keeping healthy relationships with others.
• If necessary, make a safety plan to follow if your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts. You do not want to ignore or minimize these statements. If your child is expressing pain or intent to hurt themselves, treat it as an emergency.
• It is vital to rule out any other contributing factors, including anything medical that could be a cause of your child’s symptoms.

If your child’s symptoms of depression are persistent, disruptive, and interfere with normal interests, activities, relationships, and school, it is time to get help. You can seek out the help of your pediatrician or a clinical psychologist. A clinician will screen your child for depression and other disorders to fully assess what symptoms are present and figure out a plan to help them get better.