Children are often unable to explain how they are feeling, especially when depressed. In diagnosing depression mental health professionals look for key signs and symptoms in children’s behaviour. When several of the following signs or symptoms occur together and are out of character for the child,

they indicate that the child needs assessment and support.

What you might see in a child with depression

  • Uninterested in usual activities
  • Bored, hard to motivate
  • FatigueTired all the time
  • Dawdling, dragging self around
  • Fidgeting, can’t settle
  • Cranky, bad-tempered
  • Nervous, jumpy
  • Problems going to sleep or staying asleep, waking early, or sleeping a lot
  • Unhappy, seems ‘down’ most of the time
  • Feels bad about him/herself
  • Blames him/herself excessively
  • Lonely, avoids other people
  • Talks about death or hurting him/herself
  • Doesn’t listen, can’t focus on tasks
  • Forgets details, forgets to do task
  • Impaired thinking processes
  • Draws wrong conclusions, expects the worst
  • Can’t make up mind

When adults are depressed, feelings of sadness are often very obvious. In children, irritability may be more noticeable than sadness. Sleep changes in children are more likely to be a change to sleeping less rather than sleeping more. Loss of appetite and weight loss sometimes occur in children but are less common than in adults with depression.

As well as behaviours that can be observed, children with depression have thoughts of self-criticism and helplessness. For example, depressed children may think their parents or carers favour other children in the family or that they are useless. Some children also have thoughts of suicide. It is important to take seriously any talk about wanting to die or hurt oneself from a child of any age.

Whether such talk represents a clear intention of suicide or is a way of expressing feelings of depression, it indicates a high level of distress that requires attention.