How to Talk to Your Kids About Depression

Childhood Depression: What Parents Need to Know

How to Talk to Your Kids About Depression

It's normal for kids to feel sad, act grouchy, or be in a bad mood at times. But when a sad or bad mood lasts for weeks or longer, and when there are other changes in a child's behavior, it might be depression.

Therapy can help children who are going through sadness or depression. And there are things parents can do, too. Getting the right care can prevent things from getting worse and help a child feel better.

If sadness has lasted for weeks or longer, talk about it with your child's doctor.

If a child is depressed, parents may notice some of these signs:

  • Sad or bad mood. A child may seem sad, lonely, unhappy, or grouchy. It can last weeks or months. A child may cry more easily. They may have more tantrums than before.
  • Being self-critical. Kids going through depression may complain a lot. They may say self-critical things , «I can't do anything right.» «I don't have any friends.» «I can't do this.» «It's too hard for me.»
  • Lack of energy and effort. Depression can drain a child's energy. They might put less effort into school than before. Even doing little tasks can feel too much effort. Kids may seem tired, give up easily, or not try.
  • Not enjoying things. Kids don't have as much fun with friends or enjoy playing before. They may not feel doing things they used to enjoy.
  • Sleep and eating changes. Kids may not sleep well or seem tired even if they get enough sleep. Some may not feel eating. Others may overeat.
  • Aches and pains. Some children may have stomach aches or other pains. Some miss school days because of not feeling well, even though they aren't sick.

What Causes Child Depression?

Different things can lead to depression. There is no single cause. Some children have genes that make them more sensitive to depression. They may have other family members who have been depressed.

Some children go through stressful things. Some have faced loss, trauma, or hardships. Some go through serious health conditions. These things can lead to sadness or grief — and sometimes to depression.

Having extra support during and after hard times helps protect children from depression or lessen the effects. But even when they have good support, some children get depressed. Therapy can help them heal, feel better, and get back to enjoying things.

What Is the Therapy for Child Depression?

The therapy for child depression is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Therapists help kids feel welcome and supported. They have kids talk about what they think and feel. They may use stories, play, lessons, or workbooks. These tools can help children feel at ease and get the most from CBT. When possible, a child's therapy includes their parent.

If a child has gone through a loss, trauma, or other difficult events, the therapy will include things that help a child heal from that, too. And if a parent is dealing with their own loss or depression, the child's therapist can help them get the care and support they need.

What Should I Do if I Think My Child Is Depressed?

If you think your child is depressed:

Talk with your child about sadness and depression. Kids might not know why they are so sad and why things seem so hard. Let them know you see that they're going through a hard time and that you're there to help. Listen, comfort, offer your support, and show love.

Set up a visit with your child's doctor. Let your child's doctor know if sad or bad moods seem to go on for a few weeks.

By itself, this doesn't always mean a child is depressed. Tell your child's doctor if you have also noticed changes in your child's sleep, eating, energy, or effort.

Tell them if your child is dealing with a loss, a big stress, or hardship.

The doctor will do a physical exam. A full exam lets the doctor check for health issues that could cause your child's symptoms. They can also check for depression. Your child's doctor may refer you to a child therapist. The doctor's office might have a child therapist on staff.

Set up a visit with a child therapist. A child therapist (mental health doctor) will spend time talking with you and your child. They will do an in-depth check for depression by asking questions and listening. The therapist can explain how therapy can help your child.

Take your child to therapy visits. The therapist may suggest a few visits, or more. Therapy can take time, but you will see progress along the way.

Be patient and kind. When your child acts moody or difficult, try to stay patient. Talk with your child's therapist about the best ways to respond when your child acts this way.

Often, it helps to connect with your child in a calm way, then guide them to better behavior. Instead of feeling bad, this lets kids feel proud of doing better.

It lets them see that you're proud of them, too.

Enjoy time together. Spend time with your child doing things you both can enjoy. Go for a walk, play a game, cook, read stories, make a craft, watch a funny movie. Spend time outdoors if you can. These things gently encourage positive moods. They help you and your child feel close.


When a parent is depressed — What kids want to know

How to Talk to Your Kids About Depression

Children have a lot of questions when someone in their family is sick. When the problem is about depression, it often becomes a secret that nobody talks about. When children don't have answers to their questions, they tend to come up with their own, which may be incorrect and scary!

Every parent and child's «beginning conversation» about depression will be different depending on the child's age and ability to manage the information. You know your children best.

This information will help prepare you (whether you are the well parent, the parent with depression, a grandparent, or another adult in the child's life) to take the first step.

If you have already started talking to a child about depression, this information will give you details to keep the conversation going.

It lists common questions children have about their parent's depression, as well as suggestions for how to answer their questions.

What is depression? How does depression work?

  • Depression is a disorder that affects how a person feels, thinks, and acts.
  • When people are depressed, their brain works differently from when they don't have a depression. Our brains help us to think, feel, and act in certain ways. So when people are depressed, they think, feel, and act differently from how they do when they're well.
  • Depression is not a weakness.
  • Depression is a fairly common disorder, even though people don't always talk about it.

Why does my Dad act the way he does? How does it feel to be depressed? What goes on in my Mom's head when she is not herself?

  • Depression causes people to act in ways that are different from how they act normally.
  • It can be very hard living with a parent who is depressed because that person may do or say things that make children feel bad or confused.
  • Most children notice that a parent who is depressed is not as available to do thing with them, playing, talking, or driving them places.
  • Depression causes many people to be impatient, to be more irritable, and to get angrier than normal. It can also cause someone to feel sad and cry a lot. These reactions from a parent can be very hard on children.
  • A person with depression may get tired more easily and spend a lot of time in bed.
  • Sometimes people who are depressed have trouble concentrating.
  • People with depression may worry a lot more than normal.
  • Sometimes people who are depressed have a negative attitude about life, or have low self-confidence.
  • Depression can affect people in many different ways. (This would be an opportunity for the parent to discuss his or her own symptoms with the child.)
  • As the depression lifts, the person slowly starts acting more him- or herself again.

What causes depression? How does it start?

  • Depression is a disorder, much diabetes or high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • There are many possible causes of depression. Sometimes the causes are not always known. What causes depression in one person can be different from what causes it in another. In some cases, symptoms can appear suddenly for no known reason. In some cases, the symptoms seem to come after a life crisis, stress, or other illness.
  • It is unclear why, but some people become depressed more easily than others.
  • The child is not the cause of the parent's depression.

Will the depression ever be fixed?

  • The good news is that depression is very treatable. 75 to 85 per cent of adults treated for depression get better.
  • Sometimes the depression comes back, and it can be treated again.

How can my Mom or Dad get better?

  • Many different treatments are available, including medicine and talk therapy.
  • Medicine helps to make the chemicals in the brain work better, and that can help the person who is depressed think, feel, and behave more normally.
  • Talk therapy gets people who are depressed to talk with a therapist about what they are experiencing. The therapy helps them learn new ways to cope and to think, feel, and behave in more positive ways.

Is there anything I can do to make Mom or Dad better?

  • Support from family is really important to people with depression, but it is the adults (e.g., doctors and therapists) who are responsible for treating depression, not the kids.
  • Even though you can't fix the depression, sometimes just knowing what your parent is going through, and understanding that he or she has a disorder and will get better, can help your parent.

Will it happen to me? Will I get it too?

  • No one can ever know for sure if they will get depression at some point in their lives.
  • It is natural to worry about this. Just other illnesses (e.g., arthritis or diabetes), having depression in your family might put you at an increased risk, but then again, it might not. We don't really know.
  • It's most important to focus on what you can do to help yourself deal with stress and lead a balanced life.

Is there anything I can do so I don't get depression?

  • One of the most important things that kids can do to protect against getting depressed is to be open about how they're feeling. It's healthy to let parents or other grown-ups in their life know what they're going through.
  • By opening up to parents and other grown-ups who care, kids can get the help they need to feel better and solve problems in their lives.
  • Some kids who have a parent with depression don't always talk about the times when they are feeling angry, sad, scared, or confused. They think that maybe their parents or other grown-ups don't want to hear about those feelings. But that's just not true!
  • Participating in sports, hobbies, and other activities with healthy grown-ups and kids is important because it helps to have fun and feel good about you.

Can parents give it to other people? Is it a cold? Can you catch depression?

No. Depression isn't a cold. There is no germ. It's not contagious. There is no way of catching it. So you can hang out with someone who is depressed without ever having to worry about catching it.

Questions about Self-harm

These questions touch on major issues of interest to children. However, children can ask many different questions about family situations. Once a conversation starts, it is difficult to know exactly what children might ask. Most parents are able to manage «spin-off' questions (e.g., Why is Mom in the hospital? When is Dad coming home?).

The topic of suicide is harder to handle

Many people with depression do not have suicidal thoughts. This is why this material is not included in the question and answer format. If questions arise around suicide or a parent self-harming, here are some ideas on how to share information with children.

When children hear that someone is ill, they naturally wonder if that person might die. Children sometimes ask if depression can kill a person. While suicide is a risk with depression, it is only one of the many symptoms a person might have.

Children should understand that depression does not cause the body to stop working, a heart attack might — so no, it doesn't kill people. But there are times when people with depression might feel so bad that they say things «I want to die». This can only be a scary thing for a child to hear.

And, once in a while, some people with depression do try to hurt or kill themselves when they think and feel this way.

If discussing this issue with children, it is important to reassure them that:

  • The parent has never wanted to hurt or kill him- or herself. (Say this only if true.)
  • If the parent was feeling so bad that he or she wanted to die, a doctor, therapist, or other adult would help the parent to stop feeling that way. 


Depression in children: 5-8 years

How to Talk to Your Kids About Depression

It’s normal for children to feel down, be cranky or think negatively – this is part of healthy development and learning to manage emotions. But childhood depression is more than just feeling sad, blue or low.

Depression in children is a mental health problem that affects children’s thinking, mood and behaviour. Children experiencing depression often feel negative about themselves, their situation and their future.

If your child is depressed, it can be hard for your child to learn, make friends and make the most of daily life. If depression goes on for a long time without treatment, children can fall behind at school, lose confidence in themselves and become more withdrawn.

Children who have the right care can recover from depression. Your GP can connect you with the professionals who can help. And your love and support also plays a big part in helping your child recover.

If your child says anything about suicide or self-harm – ‘I wish I was dead’ or ‘I don’t want to wake up anymore’ – you should take this seriously. Seek professional help straight away from your GP or ring Lifeline on 131 114. If you’re really worried about your child or yourself, call 000 and ask for help, or go to the closest emergency department.

Signs and symptoms of depression in children

If you notice any of the following signs in your child, and these signs last longer than about two weeks, your child might have depression.

Changes in your child’s emotions or behaviour
You might notice that your child:

  • seems sad or unhappy most of the time
  • is aggressive, won’t do what you ask most of the time, or has a lot of temper tantrums
  • says negative things about themselves – for example, ‘I’m not good at anything’ or ‘No-one at school s me’
  • feels guilty – for example, your child might say ‘It’s always my fault’
  • is afraid or worried a lot
  • keeps saying their tummy or head hurts, and these problems don’t seem to have a physical or medical cause.

Changes in your child’sinterest in everyday activities
You might notice that your child:

  • doesn’t have as much energy as they usually do
  • doesn’t want to be around friends and family
  • isn’t interested in playing or doing things they used to enjoy
  • has problems sleeping, including nightmares
  • has problems concentrating, remembering things or making simple decisions.

Changes in your child’s behaviour or academic performance at school
If your child is at school, you might also notice that your child:

  • isn’t going so well academically
  • isn’t taking part in school activities
  • has problems fitting in at school or getting along with other children.

What to do if you’re worried about depression in children

Depression doesn’t go away on its own. You need to help your child if you think they have depression.

Here’s what to do:

  • See your GP, and get a referral to a paediatrician, psychiatrist or psychologist who can diagnose depression in children.
  • If you can’t get help quickly, feel concerned about your child’s safety or don’t know what to do, find your local area mental health service by calling your nearest hospital or by calling Lifeline on 131 114.
  • If your child is having trouble talking to you about how they’re feeling, you could ask if they want to talk to another trusted adult. But always let your child know that you’re there for them and want to understand what’s happening.
  • If your child is five years old or older, they can talk with a Kids Helpline counsellor by calling 1800 551 800 or using the Kids Helpline email counselling service or the Kids Helpline web counselling service.

By finding early help for your child with depression, you can:

  • help your child get better faster
  • reduce the risk that your child will have depression later in life
  • help your child grow up healthy and well.

Your GP will probably talk with you about a mental health treatment plan for your child. If you have a plan, your child can get Medicare rebates for up to 20 sessions with a mental health professional. You can also get Medicare rebates for visits to a paediatrician or psychiatrist.

Managing depression in children: professional support

Your child’s psychologist or psychiatrist might use cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to help your child change unhelpful or unhealthy thinking habits and behaviour.

Your child’s therapist might use other approaches relaxation, mindfulness, play therapy, parent therapy or family therapy to help your child learn to think more positively and deal with challenges. This means your child will be less ly to have depression again.

Think of yourself and your child’s health professionals as a team. Talk with the professionals about how you can support your child’s therapy at home.

Managing depression in children: support at home

As well as working with mental health professionals, here are some simple and effective ways that you can help your child:

  • Make time to talk with your child and listen to their feelings. You could do this when you’re making dinner together or going for a walk.
  • Gently encourage your child to do something they would normally enjoy when they’re feeling depressed instead of dwelling on their feelings. For example, a trip to the park or spending time with friends.
  • Manage your child’s stress and tension. Regular family routines that make time for exercise, relaxing and socialising with friends can help. Getting enough sleep can also reduce your child’s stress levels.
  • Look for apps that can help your child learn relaxation strategies, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualisations and mindfulness.
  • Speak with your child’s teacher or school counsellor to find the best ways to support your child at school.

When siblings and other family members know that your child has depression, they can help by being accepting and compassionate. But before you tell other people, ask your child whether this is OK. It’s important for your child to give permission for you to tell others.

Looking after yourself when your child has depression

It’s not your fault if your child develops depression.

It can be really hard for you to see your child feeling upset, sad or withdrawn for a long time. In families, the way one person is feeling and behaving can affect other family members.

Although it’s easy to focus on looking after your child, it’s important to look after your own health and wellbeing too. Consider seeking professional help for yourself if stresses and worries are affecting your everyday life. Your GP is a good person to talk with.

If you’re physically and mentally well, you’ll be better able to care for your child.

Talking to other parents can also be a great way to get support. You can connect with other parents in similar situations by joining a face-to-face or an online parent support group.


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