Do I have a Sad Child or Could it be Depression?

sad child

Q: My son used to be a fun, lighthearted and very active kid. But lately, he’s been negative about everything. He lashed out at his sister for eating the last cookie. His angry behavior ruined a family night out because we didn’t choose his favorite restaurant. And he’s no longer speaking to his best friend for something that happened when they were playing video games together. He just seems like sad child. We have a history of depression in our family, and I’m worried.

Could my child be depressed?

A sad child with low energy levels, trouble sleeping or concentrating may be suffering from depression

But, for children, the mental health disorder doesn’t always present like a textbook case in an adult—and that can make it tricky to diagnose.

For young children, acting out, talking in a mean or negative way and always putting other people down can be red flags that depression may be an issue, said Justin Parker, a psychologist and clinical director of 3-C Family Services

Parents should ask themselves, “What is [their child’s] first response to neutral or a little bit negative stimuli?” Is it automatically calling a friend “stupid?” Are they convinced that it’s always somebody else’s fault when things don’t go their way? Do they believe they have no responsibility for anything they do? 

“That lack of I can do anything about my life … is something we really look strongly for,” Parker said. “Do they have the bounce back ability?”

After all, he added, “If a kid isn’t feeling good about himself, it’s likely he’s going to treat other people badly too.” 

Research shows that genetics, bullying, screen time, social media use and other factors all can spark depression in a child. And it’s something parents should be aware of as rates of childhood depression and other mental health issues are on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, it’s common for children with depression to also have another condition. For example, about 74% of kids ages 3 to 17 with depression have anxiety too, according to the CDC.

For parents who are worried that their child may be depressed, Parker shared some steps they can take to help their children and determine the best course of action. 

Talk it out

If your child calls you a stupid jerk when you greet him in the morning, don’t immediately mete out punishment. “Rather than coming down hard on them … go with, ‘Woah, I’m surprised at what just happened here,’” Parker said.

Have a conversation like this with them, said Parker: “‘All I said to you was I was happy to see you this morning, and then you responded by calling me a name. What’s going on there, my man? How did we get to that spot?’”

“Get really, really curious as a parent,” he said.

In the heat of the moment, your child may just tell you to shut up, but the dialogue will give you an opening later to talk to them more about the moment. At that point, Parker recommends asking them, “What can I do for you?” 

“The idea of what can I do for you really can flip the script for a kiddo like this,” he said.

Check in often

Even if you’re not worried that your child may be depressed, Parker said that parents must take the time to place their focus exclusively on their child on a regular basis (and without a phone in hand).

Instead of open-ended questions about their day, ask them about what they’re interested in. If your child’s a gamer, for example, what new game is he playing? Does he play it with other people? Those regular conversations can be openings for children to mention their own feelings and worries.

“You’ll be shocked at what kind of world that will open up” he said. “You really get to have a longer conversation to see how they’re doing. Asking about things they want to talk about and then listening to what they say is incredibly important.”

Consider seeking help

Your child’s mental health, of course, is a lifelong concern. And, in some cases, they’ll need the support of a mental health professional. How do you know when to go for more help?

“What I say to parents is, ‘Trust your instincts,’” Parker said. “You know your child better than anybody else in this world. If something is not right, there’s been a change in behavior, it was not this way six months ago, there’s something major in this child’s life, I need to get to the bottom of it, that’s the time.”

Be good to yourself

Parenting a child with a mental health disorder isn’t always easy—and it can even be terrifying at times. Give yourself some grace.

“Be kind to yourself and acknowledge things you really are doing well,” he said. “When you have a child who’s acting sad or angry, it’s easy to get caught up in that’s all the child is doing, they’re always mad. That’s really unlikely. For most of your child’s life, 90-plus percent of it, they are doing just fine. It’s that extra 10% that’s getting us in trouble. So make sure we’re taking perspective and looking at the good along with the things we want to improve.”

Help them express themselves

“As adults, we tend to not talk much about feelings. Feelings are a weakness. We don’t talk about it and we do a lot of, ‘Oh you’re fine, shake it off.’ Children who have to stuff down their feelings are much more likely to become depressed. That’s not the fault of a particular parent. That’s the culture that we live in, and it can come from many different sources. What parents can do proactively is [making] talking about expressing feelings a regular part of the family conversation.”

Jennifer Miller, expert in social and emotional learning and author of Confident Parents, Confident Kids

Seek out moments of happiness

“When people are depressed, they tend to lose interest in activities that they previously enjoyed … Try to find something that makes him smile, such as a movie, skateboarding, or video games. Even if you don’t understand it or appreciate it, something that seems fleeting and short-term can create a positive memory and give him a glimmer of happiness and hope.”

Lee Bare, licensed psychologist via Psychology Today

Trust your instincts

“It’s easy to become overly vigilant in looking for signs and symptoms of depression in your child. But try to strike a balance: While you want to be alert to any changes in your child’s behavior, you also don’t want to jump to conclusions. Remember that in and of itself, no individual behavior necessarily signals depression in your child or—with the exception of suicidal thoughts, statements or actions—demands immediate attention. Instead, it is the constellation of depressive signs and symptoms, combined with your own parental instincts, that will let you know when it’s time to seek professional help. If you have persistent questions or doubts, however, it’s always best to err on the side of safety and caution, and have your child evaluated by a trained mental health clinician.”

David G. Fassler, psychiatrist, and Lynne Dumas via their book, Help Me, I’m Sad: Recognizing, Treating and Preventing Childhood and Adolescent Depression