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How to Recognize the Signs of Childhood Depression

How to recognize the signs of childhood depression

Similarly to how it manifests uniquely during adolescence versus adulthood, depression looks differently in early childhood as well. It is important to recognize the signs of childhood depression and to distinguish them from normal developmental milestones and behaviors. By the time you are finished reading this post, I hope that you’ll be able to identify the signs that your child may be depressed and to separate them from typical childhood behaviors.

Beforehand, I do want to open big brackets here: [I want to emphasize that the best way to know for sure if someone is depressed is to seek professional evaluation either by a therapist or by a psychiatrist. If you are concerned for your child or another family member, this post should only serve to orient you; it is not intended to replace the diagnostic process.]

So, what are the signs of childhood depression?

The first and most obvious sign that a kid is depressed is a general and overpowering sense of sadness. If your kid is crying a lot and cannot really explain why or just seems generally sad and gloomy, that’s a sign that they are hurting.

Another way to notice the sadness is to observe your child’s willingness to engage in spontaneous play either alone or with other kids, something they would usually engage in with ease, considering they’ve had proper rest and adequate nutrition.

A lack of interest in play, sometimes accompanied by a change in appetite or eating habits, would indicate that something may be wrong. This lack of interest in play may also come with feelings of tiredness, sleepiness and low energy.

However, for some kids, sadness may be masked by other behaviors or affective states such as:

  • irritability – the kid is easily frustrated, annoyed and generally unhappy. They may struggle with following direction or enjoying themselves when they are out with family and friends.
  • temper tantrums – if the child is older than the “terrible two’s” when temper tantrums are expected and part of normal development, melt downs may be a sign of something more serious happening with your child.
  • angry outbursts – this happens with a little older kids, those nearing middle school, pre-adolescents and adolescents. A common way for sadness to mask itself is through manifestations of anger.
  • physical aggression – when the aggression feels out of control and the kid bursts in tears afterwards, this may indicate an underlying condition of depression.
  • physical complaints and frequent illnesses – this is probably one of the most common, yet unrecognized signs of childhood depression. Because children cannot verbalize their feelings as well as adults can, what they are feeling emotionally often expresses itself through their bodies in the form of frequent illnesses, stomach pains, unexplained headaches or other forms of the body “hurting.”
  • regression in developmental progress – what do I mean by this. Let’s say that your kid is toilet trained and, all of a sudden, they start having accidents again. Sometimes, this happens but if it continues beyond once or twice, it may be a sign of something more going on.

This kind of understanding of childhood behavior and emotion is practical psychoanalysis at it’s core. As I have mentioned before, psychoanalysis listens beyond the obvious and looks for the meaning of symptoms beyond their face value.

What is the meaning of this or that behavior? Is there a reason why the child is acting this way? What are they trying to communicate to us without words but through their bodies and with their behavior? These are the questions we address in psychoanalytic psychotherapy with children and adolescents.


Are you worried about your child or someone you know? Leave a comment below or email me and I’ll do my best to help.

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How to Recognize the Signs of Childhood Depression

Mihaela Bernard, MA, LCPC

Mihaela Bernard, MA, LCPC is a licensed clinical professional counselor and founder of Inside Family Counseling, LLC in Chicago. She is a Professional Member of the American Counseling Association and a member of Chicago Psychoanalytic Circle of the Freudian School of Quebec, Canada. She is the author of Mental Health Digest electronic magazine, your free, easy-to-read electronic resource on common mental health issues affecting you and your family, plus some suggestions on how to address them. She specializes in psychoanalytic psychotherapy for troubled children and adolescents, who face behavioral and emotional challenges at home and at school. Her mission is to empower, support and guide children, adolescents and their parents to a happy and healthy family. Mihaela also writes a Parenting Blog, where parents find helpful resources and practical tips on how to support their child and adolescent's behavioral and emotional development. You may find out more about her at

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APA Reference
, . (2015). How to Recognize the Signs of Childhood Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2018, from


Last updated: 27 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Oct 2015
Published on All rights reserved.