Growing up is hard enough—growing up with depression can feel impossible. Children and teenagers are often labeled as moody or angsty by parents and other adults, and teenagers themselves can think something is wrong with them. It is normal for kids to experience mood fluctuations, but if those feelings and behaviors last longer than two weeks, they may signal depression. Because children and teenagers do get depression. In fact, depression affects about three percent of US children. Childhood depression is a serious, but treatable, mental health issue.

What are the signs and symptoms of childhood depression?

We asked our mental health community to share, in retrospect, how they knew they were living with depression as children. We’ve broken what they had to say down into symptoms and warning signs of childhood depression.

Changes in Mood and Behavior

  • “I didn’t feel the excitement of doing anything anymore. I got extremely detached from everyone, I no longer cared what happened to me. I just kind of stayed away from other kids, and it took more effort than I’d like to admit to even talk to anyone.” –Athena C.
  • “When I was really young, like grade-school, I never understood why all of the other children were so happy and carefree. Everyone else seemed great at making friends and enjoyed being a child, but I couldn’t enjoy anything. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness even at a young age. I questioned my existence on a daily basis, I just couldn’t be happy, but was too young to understand what depression was.” –Audrey L.

Negative and Self-Critical Thinking

  • “For me, it was never feeling good enough, like no matter how hard I tried I just wasn’t like everyone else, especially my two older sisters. Then the increased emotions came.” –Ashley G.
  • “Your brain will tell you worst possible scenarios. Intrusive thoughts will be mean to you and tell you that you don’t deserve to enjoy life.” –Keith B.
  • “I was always feeling like there was a black cloud casting a shadow over me even when things were happy. Never feeling like I was enough—I always could have been better. Feeling ashamed of myself for no real reason…just feeling like I didn’t fit in anywhere. Like I didn’t belong in this life.”—Jennifer L.

Actions of Guilt, Defiance, and Anger

  • “Looking back on it, I constantly felt guilt and had a hard time fitting in with anyone. I was a very cautious and shy kid.” –Poppy W.
  • “I would get so upset or so mad so quickly and without reason. I didn’t realize I had depression until this year.” –Ashley G.
  • “I had really bad anger issues, and it was hard to control my emotions. I didn’t know what was wrong with me when I was a teenager, it was really hard.” –Kate W.

Emotional Outburst

  • “I cried a lot and wasn’t as happy as the other kids. I was unmotivated and didn’t want to shower; my room was a mess and I would stay inside and play games all day. I had trouble making friends because I was super shy, and that turned into anxiety (these issues have some childhood trauma factors and environmental factors as well).”—Hannah F.
  • “In high school, I would wake up and cry because I had to go to school. I was afraid all the time.” –Genevieve O.

Unusual Sleeping Patterns and Feeling Physically Sick

  • “Feeling more tired, losing interest in things I loved, being less outgoing, more shy.” –Karalyn G.
  • “The psychosomatic parts of it that my family didn’t recognize or even know about. The headaches, the tummy aches, coming home from school with panic attacks, unable to sleep at night, or sleeping too much. I was so young. And looking back, the signs were always there.” –Jessica I.
  • “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel exhausted. In middle school and the beginning of high school, I begged my parents to be homeschooled because I always stayed up at night crying about having to go there the next day.” –Sarah K.
  • “I remember either oversleeping or not being able to sleep for long periods. I would get nagged by my mom, so I thought I was just lazy.” –Chelsea M.

Lack of Concentration and Academic Decline

  • “For me, it was not being able to focus. My grades dropped from straight As to Fs from what seemed like out of nowhere.” –Athena C.
  • “I got overwhelmed by schoolwork that should have been easy for me.” – Genevieve O.
  • “I quit my first university due to ‘home sickness.’ Now I’ve realized it was depression that caused the fatigue, social anxiety, and loss of interest in everything I had been doing.” –Magdalena K.
  • “I had problems focusing, finishing my school work and my grades were terrible. I hated the world so I made my own world in my head. I still go there sometimes.” –Ezra P.

Suicidal Ideation or Self Harm

  • “Whenever I climbed a tree or somewhere up high looking down, I thought how nice it would be if I was high enough to jump. Never knew that was a concerning thought.”—Brittany B.
  • When I was a teenager, it was really hard. I was suicidal and self-harmed. I wish I had been diagnosed earlier, instead of having friends and teachers tell me I was faking it for attention.” –Kate W.
  • “I remember writing in this diary I had when I was like 7 or 8 that I just wanted to ‘go away.’ Not to run away but disappear completely right there and then. It’s weird because I didn’t really know the concept of suicide back then, but I just remember not wanting to exist.” –Kate S.

What Can You Do to Help a Child with Depression

Childhood depression is a serious mental health issue. The symptoms can interfere with school, social activities, and daily life. If left undiagnosed and untreated, the depression can continue to negatively affect children as they transition into adulthood.

The good news is that it is treatable, and there are a range of things we can do to help a child find the path to their best life.

Give the Child Emotional Support

Children and teenagers need emotional support and if you are a parent, your role is to help build the foundation needed for your child to manage future social relationships and emotional challenges. Parents, and other trusted adults, can do this by actively participating in the child’s life and encouraging a positive place for emotions to live. Parents can:

  • Spend more quality time with a child
  • Develop conversations that are open and honest
  • Acknowledge their feelings and struggles
  • Become active listeners
  • Help them learn positive ways to cope with anger

Encourage Connection

Isolation can deepen depressive thoughts and working to develop strong personal connections for your child can help them feel supported when they need it most. While you can’t force friends on your children, you can help create opportunities that encourage relationship growth.

  • Encourage participation in school activities or clubs
  • Provide ideas about social activities
  • Encourage play dates and sleep overs
  • Include positive family members in regular gathering or outings
  • Look into mentorship programs

Promote a Healthy Lifestyle

Your mental health is closely related to your physical health, and it is no different for children. In fact, exercise is often considered a natural anti-depressant. Finding ways to encourage healthier eating and physical activity can help your child feel better and provide access to a whole host of sports and activities that can encourage connectedness, healthy lifestyle and positive thinking all in one.

  • Joining a sports team
  • Taking a daily walk
  • Planting a food garden
  • Taking a kids cooking class

Seek Professional Support

When dealing with depression, childhood or otherwise, it is important to take it seriously. Getting professional counseling help can encourage positivity and with work, uncover the path for anyone to live their best life– and enjoy it.

Please reach out to The Center for Mental Health to get help at any time. One of our caring professional counselors can help you cope with anxiety, depression or feelings of being overwhelmed. For appointments call 970-252-3200. For urgent help, call our free 24/7 Crisis and Support Line at 970.252.6220.

Contributed by Megan Outlaw, MSW, LCSW with The Center for Mental Health