Tala, 13, a Sudanese refugee living in Egypt, speaks out about how teens can support their own mental health.

Parenting: Is Your Child Depressed?

How to recognize depression in your child and how you can help them.

What is depression?

Depression is sadness and hopelessness that can mask itself as normal childhood moodiness. It is one of the most common types of mental health conditions and often develops alongside anxiety.

Depression can be mild and short-lived or severe and long-lasting. Some people are affected only once, while others may experience it multiple times. Research suggests that genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors play a role in depression. 

It's not always easy to know when your child has a serious problem but it's important to recognize and treat mental illnesses in children early. Once mental illness develops, it becomes a regular part of your child's behavior. This makes it more difficult to treat.

Also know that depression can lead to suicide, but the good news is that it's preventable when appropriate support is provided. And depression can be treated. The sooner you speak to an expert, the sooner your child can feel better.

Signs and symptoms of depression

Depression can feel different for different children. Both symptoms and treatment will be unique to each child.

Common signs and symptoms of depression include:


  • Tiredness or low energy, even when rested
  • Restlessness or difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty carrying out normal daily activities
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns — too much or too little
  • Aches or pains that have no obvious cause

Emotional and mental:

  • Irritability, high levels of anxiety, persistent sadness
  • Loss of interest in friends and activities that they normally enjoy
  • Trouble in school or a decline in school work
  • Withdrawal from others and loneliness
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or pessimism
  • Taking risks they wouldn’t normally take
  • Self-harming or suicidal thoughts

Experiencing one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean a child is depressed. But if they have had some or most of the symptoms most of the day, nearly every day for at least two weeks, they may have major  depression and need treatment.

Symptoms can even vary by age group. Young children may be cranky, clingy and anxious while older children and teens may get into trouble at school, sulk, be easily frustrated‚ feel restless, or have low self-esteem. If you are unsure about symptoms and how to get help for your teen, go to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health page.

Whether sadness or full-blown depression, there are ways you can help your child cope including ways to prevent things getting worse.

If you are worried about your child, don't hesitate to ask your health-care provider or your chid's school counselor for advice.

Ways to help your child cope

Here are some things you can do to support your child if you think they may be depressed:

  1. Find out what’s happening: Ask them how they’re feeling and listen openly without judgment or advice. Ask people you trust who know your child, like a teacher or friend, to find out if they’ve noticed anything that might be worrying them or changes in their reactions to things. Pay particular attention during important life changes like starting a new school or puberty.
  2. Spend time with them: Try to build an environment of support by casually talking with them or doing age-appropriate activities together that they will enjoy. Take an interest in their life, like how their day was at school or what they love most about their friends.
  3. Encourage positive habits: Encourage your child to do the things they usually enjoy, stick to regular eating and sleeping habits and stay active. Physical activity is an important way to boost their mood. Music can have a strong influence on our moods, so try listening to songs together that make them feel positive about life. Meditation and mindfulness are also helpful.
  4. Help them form positive social connections: Group activities such as sports, arts and other recreational after-school activities including volunteering in your community build friendships and help foster good mental health.
  5. Let them express themselves: Let them talk to you. Listen carefully to what they say about how they feel. Never press your child to talk, instead you can encourage other ways to express their feelings like drawing, painting, crafts or journaling their thoughts and experiences. 
  6. Protect them from stressful surroundings: Try to keep your child away from situations where they may experience excessive stress, maltreatment or violence. And remember to model healthy behavior and reactions to the stresses in your own life, including setting boundaries and maintaining positive self-care habits.
  7. Make sure they know you love and support them. And ensure they have someone to turn to, even if it's not you.

When to seek professional help

As depression can only be diagnosed by a qualified expert, it's important to seek help from your health care provider who may refer your child to a mental health expert. If they think your child would benefit from treatment, the options might include some form of family counseling, talk therapy — where they learn how to manage their thoughts and feelings — or a combination of therapy and medication.

If your child has thoughts of self-harm, or has already self-harmed, seek help from emergency services (911) or a health-care professional. Don’t delay getting in touch if you’re worried.

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has good resources to find a Health Care Provider or Treatment.

If your child is in crisis

Most kids are reluctant to tell their parents if they are in trouble but there are ways you can help them connect without confronting them.

Print and post these numbers and links somewhere visible, like the refrigerator, so your child can access them for help.

Other Information & Contacts

If you are concerned about a child or friend’s social media updates, you can contact safety teams at the social media company. They will reach out to connect the person with the help they need. 

Disaster Distress Helpline Calling or texting 1-800-985-5990 provides immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. The helpline is free, multilingual, confidential, and available 24/7.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): email helpline@nami.org, text "Friend" to 62640, call 800-950-6264 or consult their excellent Teen and Young Adult Resource Directory.

National Academies of Medicine's Supporting Emotional Wellbeing in Children and Youth, offers tools for children, teens and parents.

Check out the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page on children's mental health, or the NIH Kids and Depression page.

Learn more about how to support a child's mental health.

NIH resource: 5 Steps for Helping Someone in Emotional Pain

TOP PHOTO: What may seem like normal moodiness could be depression. Know the signs. © UNICEF/UNI551390/Fathy
TOP PHOTO: What may seem like normal moodiness could be depression. Know the signs. © UNICEF/UNI551390/Fathy