By Deborah Serani, Psy.D.
Children, and sometimes even toddlers, can experience depression. The clinical term is called pediatric depression, and around 3% of children aged 3-17 years old experience it.
Sometimes it can be hard to know the difference between normal childhood feelings and symptoms of pediatric depression. However, when we learn about the different ways sadness and depression affect children, we can avoid perpetuating the common myths.
Children don’t have the verbal language or cognitive savvy to express the textures of sadness. Instead, body symptoms like aches and pains, fatigue, and slowness often present along with tearfulness, unrealistic feelings of guilt, isolation and irritability.
Most children who have depression keep their thoughts and feelings masked. They often hide what they’re feeling because they don’t want to show sadness. It makes them feel uncomfortable, so they push it away. Some children put on a smile even though they may be struggling inside. And then there are little ones that may not even understand the depths of their own sadness, so they can’t really express it to their caregivers.
The only way for parents to understand chronic sadness and depression is to be aware of age-specific behaviors and symptoms. For instance, younger children tend to have aches and pains, cry and whine when they’re sad. Older children often get irritable, withdrawn and avoidant when they feel sadness. School-aged children often experience difficulties concentrating, feel insecure, argue or express that they don’t like to do things anymore. Knowing the symptoms to look for will help you determine if your child is struggling with depression.
Chronic sadness could mean a child has pediatric depression, which cannot be willed away. Ignoring the problem doesn’t help either. Depression is a serious, but treatable, illness that requires professional help.
Talking about sadness with your child can actually help reduce symptoms by validating their feelings and experience. It also helps to teach them about their feelings and how to name them. Support and encouragement lets children know they’re not alone, and that they are loved and cared for.
Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in youth ages 10 to 24. Suicide is significantly linked to depression, so early diagnosis and treatment is a vital aspect of prevention. When we identify early symptoms of depression, often called “promodal” or beginning signs, we interrupt the trajectory of a severe depressive illness from setting in. We essentially reduce the risk of suicide and other serious depressive symptoms from occurring with early diagnosis and treatment.
Studies show talk therapy treatments like play therapy, family therapy and individual therapy offer significant improvements for children who experience depression. Children and families who are involved with psychotherapy learn how to identify sad feelings, express them in healthy ways and learn interventions to cope better.
Pediatric depression challenges how a child thinks, feels and behaves. And talk therapy will strengthen a child’s cognition, reframe thoughts and feelings in more positive ways and create behavioral expression that is proactive and healthy.
Children with depression can grow up to live full, productive lives, especially if they receive the treatment and support they need.
Dr. Deborah Serani is a psychologist, professor and award-winning author. Dr. Serani's children's picture book, “Sometimes When I’m Sad” addresses pediatric sadness and depression. Please visit her at drdeborahserani.com.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Call the NAMI Helpline at
In a crisis,
Find Your Local NAMI