Is my child depressed?

What depression looks like in children and teens, and what parents can do to help.

As many as 1 in 5 children and youth in Ontario are affected by mental health challenges, such as depression (CMHO). Because normal behaviours in children and teens vary depending on developmental stage, it can be difficult to tell if something more serious is going on (CAMH). Depression can affect feelings, behaviours, thinking, and communication. Some common signs of depression in children and teens include:

  • Feeling sad, worried, angry, irritable
  • Crying or tearfulness
  • Lack of enjoyment in life and activities
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Problems with sleep, appetite, concentration and energy
  • Somatic complaints (headaches, stomach aches)
  • Trouble coping with everyday activities
  • Self-harm behaviours
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

While there are many treatment methods, one of the most common treatments for depression is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT addresses thoughts, feelings and behaviours and how they are connected. Therefore, part of treatment is about helping children and teens learn helpful coping strategies and helpful thinking habits. Additionally, learning to talk about what is happening with thoughts and feelings is important.

Parents can help children and teens manage depression by teaching and modelling healthy thinking, coping, and maintaining open communication. For this reason, some concrete examples of what parents or young people can do are discussed below.

Healthy Thinking

Feelings and actions often originate in thinking. Therefore, depression often takes on the form of self-defeating, helpless, and hopeless thoughts. Encouraging a more realistic way of thinking can help loosen the depression. Some of the things parents can do include:

  • Help identify unhelpful thinking habits
  • Help replace negative thoughts with more realistic thoughts
  • Encourage positive self-talk (“I can do this”)
  • Keep a gratitude journal or list

Healthy Coping

Another important facet of treating depression is building healthy coping skills. Some examples include:

  • Good nutrition with regular meals and snacks
  • Exercise
  • Regular sleep routine and sleep hygiene
  • Relaxation strategies
  • Encourage self-care (hygiene, emotional)
  • Encourage pleasurable activities
  • Help identify what makes them feel comfortable and safe

Healthy Communication

Most importantly, talking to your child or teen about how they are feeling can help your young person feel heard and connected. Furthermore, it will give you an idea of what may actually be happening for them, and if it may be time to reach out for professional help. Some of the things to keep in mind when talking to your child or teen include:

  • Encourage open communication
  • Listen without judgment
  • Monitor your own reactions and focus on being a safe presence
  • Be empathetic
  • Validate their feelings and experiences
  • Make time to connect by being available or engaging in activities

Additional Resources

There was a comprehensive article published in the Globe and Mail earlier this year detailing 8 signs your child may be going through depression, which talked about signs to watch for and things parents can do to help as well.

If you are worried that your child or teen may hurt themselves, call a local crisis line (in Hamilton call COAST 905-972-8338). You can also call your doctors office to an appointment. If you have immediate safety concerns, you can go to your local emergency department.

There are local services available to help with all sorts of mental health challenges. Treatment is available through Contact Hamilton, your doctors office, or through local fee-for-service therapists. Acorn Counselling helps children, teens, and families who are struggling with depression and mood disruptions. If you would like more information, do not hesitate to contact us.