How to Recognize Depression in Children


One of the most alarming symptoms that a parent can notice in a child are depressive symptoms. A securely attached parent is likely to ask: “ Is it clinical depression?” or “Is treatment necessary?” The reality is that depression in a child has the potential for serious consequences. My advice is to examine thoroughly the duration and the intensity of the depressive symptoms. With this information in hand, examine the immediate precursors to the depressive symptoms. Keep in mind that the danger to the child increases when the symptoms are left untreated.

Look for:

Relationship Problems. A child with depression may begin to withdraw from friends and family. Note well if the child becomes unfriendly to others or easily irritated.

Recurrent Depressive Symptoms. Ask yourself if this has become a pattern? Has the new depressive behavior replaced the old. Remember that untreated depression is likely to recur.

Risk Taking and Reckless Behavior. This type of behavior is a signal that something is amiss. If the behaviors have been heretofore absent, there is a likely change in the child’s mental health.

Substance Abuse. My experience with adolescent and adult substance abuse dictates that it is often the effect of some need to self-medicate. The immature mind may see the short-term gain of “feeling better” and neglect the long-tern effect of addiction.

Academic Decline or Failure. It is difficult to remain academically successful and battle depression. Academic decline is the most common symptom of depression in children.

Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors. This is the most dangerous of depression symptoms. Feelings of hopelessness, isolation and worthlessness in a child should alert the parent to question the child closely.

No one is better positioned to address any of the above changes in behavior than a securely attached parent(s).

Here are some suggestions on how to help and guide the child to recovery:

A secure attachment between the parent and child offers ample opportunity for the parent(s) to note the warning signs. When a secure attachment is in place, talk to the child. Broach the subject of suicide. That conversation does not give the child the idea to commit suicide. Instead it makes the attachment more secure. Talk about any of the warning signs that may be present. Also spread your concern to others who share proximity to the child. They can help you monitor the child whenever you are not nearby. Finally get the child into treatment. Treatment provides an objective view of the child’s behavior and emotional state. This valuable assessment is something that the subjective parent(s) cannot determine.

My view is that it better to be safe in the present than sorry in the future. This is your child’s well-being. Maintain an open communication that alerts you if…

The child is in some type of crisis.

There has been suicide ideation in the past.

The child is threatening to harm themselves.

Your parental gut feeling is in place.

Do not wait! Having a child with depressive symptoms does not make you a bad or negligent parent. It may not suggest that you had anything to do with the child’s pain. Good parenting simply demands that you get the child professional help and support the child in their recovery.

For immediate help telephone the National Suicide Hotline at 1 800 273 8255

Special thanks to The Journal of Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviors. August 2008


David C. R. Kerr, Ph.D., Lee D. Owen, B.S., Katherine C. Pears, Ph.D., and Deborah M. Capaldi, Ph. D.

Edward L. Oriole LCPC CADC NCC

Staff at The Lighthouse Emotional Wellness Center

1930 Thoreau Dr. Suite 170

Schaumburg, IL 60173

tel 847 253 9769