A child can develop anxiety or depression at any age, though they’re more likely to be diagnosed as they get older.
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In the past, it was thought that children were too young to experience depression. We now know that they do, though they might experience it differently than adults.
Research has found that depression and anxiety are also highly comorbid, meaning children are often diagnosed with both an anxiety disorder and depression at the same time. Younger children are more likely to experience separation anxiety, whereas social anxiety is more common as children age.
Experts have found that infants can show signs of depression, though it’s not common. Additionally, babies who are shyer, more withdrawn, or easily upset may be more susceptible to depression.
In addition, exposure to stressful life events, trauma or neglect, and having a parent who is depressed can increase the risk of infant depression.
About 4 percent of children ages 2 to 5, 5 percent of children ages 6 to 12, and 11.2 percent of teens ages 13 to 18 have depression, according to Deborah Serani’s book “Depression and Your Child: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers.”
In people of all ages, the typical symptoms of depression include:
- lack of pleasure or interest in activities
- changes in appetite and sleep
- low energy
- feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- poor concentration
- thoughts of death
Symptoms of anxiety include:
- poor concentration
- sleep disturbances
- concentration difficulties
- physical symptoms (like muscle tension)
Children’s anxiety and depression often show some of these hallmark symptoms. Parents should also be attentive to more child-specific signs of anxiety and depression, such as:
- temper outbursts or misbehaviors
- lack of interest in fun activities
- failure to gain weight as expected
- sleep problems
- social isolation or problems
- problems at school
- refusal to go to school or attendance problems
Babies with depression or anxiety may be fussier and inconsolable, and pre-school aged children may cry excessively when separated from their parent(s).
School aged children may often complain of stomachaches to get out of going to school. Teens may be more irritable, isolated from family and friends, or stay in their rooms for most of the day, choosing not to join family activities.
The intensity and duration of symptoms differentiate typical “negative” behavior from anxiety and depressive disorders.
For example, here are some typical childhood reactions children without anxiety or depression might have:
- anxiety about starting a new school
- being worried about going to a new place
- nervousness when meeting new people
- irritability for a day
- feeling upset when separated from a parent
- sadness after a move
Even tantrums or withdrawal may be typical for little ones who need parental guidance and support to help adjust to life events, cope with distress, and learn emotional regulation.
Signs of anxiety and depressive disorders differ, because they involve more intense feelings, thoughts, and patterns of behavior that last over a consistent period of weeks or months.
There’s no one cause of anxiety or depression. Multiple factors may contribute to the development of these disorders:
- Genetics. Having a parent or sibling with anxiety or depression may indicate a genetic predisposition to the disorders.
- Environment. Learned responses from a caregiver or a reaction to a stressful or traumatic event may contribute.
- Temperament. A child’s temperament, life events, stressors, and lack of protective factors, such as social support, may contribute to the later development of anxiety or depression. But, that doesn’t mean a child will, for certain, develop a mental health condition.
Parents and caregivers can encourage children to talk about their feelings and thoughts. Teaching children emotion words and encouraging healthy emotional expression and coping skills is essential.
Talk with your child and let them know you’re there to protect, support, and love them.
Caregivers can also help children develop healthy habits, such as good sleep hygiene, balanced eating, and physical activity. Take children outside daily for exposure to air, sunlight, and green spaces.
Play is the language of children, so play daily with them. Spend less time with technology and screen time, and encourage exploration and creativity.
Every child is different, so learn your child’s unique temperament and adjust your parenting and communication style to your child’s individual needs. Know the signs of anxiety and depression and be attentive to any changes in your child’s typical mood and behavior.
If you recognize signs of anxiety and depression, talk with your child, and encourage them to share their feelings. Let them know you’re there to support and love them unconditionally. Encourage children to be active and do fun and pleasurable things — even if they don’t feel like it.
Seek professional support to diagnose and help your child with depression or anxiety. This might include talk therapy or medication.
It’s important to seek support for yourself and remember that self-care is essential for you, too.
Children should see a healthcare professional when they have moderate to severe anxiety and depression that interferes with their daily functioning.
This might mean:
- declines in school performance
- problems with relationships
- social isolation
- arguing with family and friends
Seeking support from a healthcare professional may include seeing your child’s primary care provider, a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or a school counselor.
To diagnose depression or anxiety, the professional may interview both you and your child. Some may also use screening measures and standardized scales, such as the Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI) or the Screen for Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders (SCARED).
Some professionals may also interview or give questionnaires to teachers, childcare providers, or other caregivers.
Treatment will depend on the severity but might include weekly talk therapy with your child. Many professionals will also include parents in these sessions.
Some children might also benefit from medication, usually prescribed by a psychiatrist or pediatrician.
If your child has depression or anxiety, it doesn’t mean you or they have done anything wrong. Parents and children may experience various reactions to being diagnosed, including fear and shock. Some may even experience guilt, shame, or stigma. Your feelings are valid.
Know that depression and anxiety are common and treatable medical conditions that affect your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and sometimes require professional attention.
Getting help will allow your child to live a full, fun, satisfied, and successful life.
It’s also important for caregivers to take care of themselves. Make time for yourself, for things you enjoy, and fill up your own tank. Your child is at their best when you’re at yours.
Dr. Akilah Reynolds is a licensed psychologist in California. She practices at an academic psychiatric center and in private practice. Dr. Reynolds specializes in child psychology, parenting, depression and anxiety, and work-life balance.