As parents, we hope that we’ll be able to protect our kids from unpleasant experiences and emotions. When our children are sad or disappointed, it can be heart-breaking, and we might wish that we could shield them from these painful feelings.
However, just like adults, children are capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions. They should be taught that all emotions, whether positive or negative, are normal and valid.
What is sadness?
Sadness is an emotion that everyone experiences at times, and it’s natural as long as it doesn’t happen often or last too long. Sad times and happy times are both part of life. How sad a child feels depends on what’s causing the sadness and how they are able to cope.
How is depression different from sadness?
There are five fundamental differences between sadness and depression.
- Sadness is an emotion and is often situational, for example, feeling sad after a fight with a friend, a disappointment, or a loss. Depression differs from sadness in that it is a mood disorder characterized by a persistent low mood and a loss of interest in daily activities.
- Sadness is brief, and while the feeling may be overwhelming, it usually fades in a short time. Depression persists for a longer period of time, and you can’t just “snap out of it.”
- Sadness is a normal emotional reaction, while depression is an abnormal general state that affects the whole person.
- Sadness changes your mood, but you can still function normally when sad. Depression, on the other hand, affects your ability to function and changes your whole life.
- Sadness is subjective-only you can confirm that you feel sad. Depression is a condition that requires a specific diagnosis.
How common is depression in children?
The CDC suggests that in the United States, as many as 3.2% of children aged 3-17 have been diagnosed with depression. This is close to 2 million diagnosed cases, with many more depressed children and teenagers going undiagnosed.
While depression in children ages 3-11 is less common (0.2-1.8% compared to 6% of children aged 12 and over), it does occur. In 73% of these cases, children and teens experience anxiety as well, and nearly half of them also have accompanying behavioral problems.
While elements such as poor socio-economics, exposure to violence, and troubled relationships with peers and family can play a role in mental well-being, genetics and some other factors can also increase the risk of depression.
How can I tell the difference in my child?
The difference between feeling sad and suffering from depression can be subtle, especially in the initial stages of a depressive episode. Sadness can also progress to becoming a depression. When feelings of sadness become prevalent and don’t improve over time, there is a possibility that your child is depressed.
Symptoms of depression in children can be similar to those of adults, but not always. They may cause the child significant distress and impair their ability to function socially or academically.
Here is a list of things to look out for in your child to identify the symptoms:
- Irritability or anger
- Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or worthlessness
- Social withdrawal
- Increased sensitivity or moodiness
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Crying easily or for no apparent reason
- Difficulty concentrating
- Low levels of energy
- Thoughts of death
- General complaints of feeling unwell (for example, headaches and stomach aches that don’t respond to treatment)
Because we expect our teens to be moody, it can be easy to overlook depression at this age. Adolescents are also often reticent to discuss their feelings and may not be well equipped with the skills required to understand their emotions and express them effectively. Our article on teen depression discusses this in more detail.
As a parent, you can keep an eye out for red flags such as:
- Sudden change in school performance
- Lack of desire to socialize with friends or participate in activities
- Displaced or inexplicable anger
- Excessive sensitivity to criticism
- Expressing the feeling of not being “good enough”
- Substance abuse
- Problems with authority
It’s important to remember that not everyone experiences depression in the same way. Not all children have all symptoms, and symptoms may change over time.
Depression screening recommendations
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published an update to its Guidelines for Adolescent Depression in Primary Care, encouraging pediatricians to conduct depression screening for children ages 10 and above. These guidelines assist primary care providers in the identification, assessment, and initial management of possible depression in adolescents.
For a formal diagnosis of clinical depression or major depressive disorder, clinicians use a set of criteria outlined in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5).
Helping my sad or depressed child
Our role as parents is not to shield our children from their unpleasant or negative emotions but teach them ways of understanding and managing them. As kids develop the ability to regulate their feelings, they build resilience, which can protect them against depression.
Parents and caregivers can use the following methods to help their kids address emotions such as sadness:
- Validate emotions. It’s important to acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings. Use phrases like “I can see you’re feeling sad right now.”
- Respect feelings. Respect your child’s feelings without minimizing or amplifying them.
- Focus on the goal. Remember that the goal is to learn how to process and manage sadness, not distract from it.
- Give it time. Especially in the case of grief caused by loss, time is an important healing factor.
- Teach coping skills. Feelings of anger can occur alongside sadness. Coping mechanisms such as breathing techniques can help your child deal with anger if it arises.
- Offer age-appropriate information. Fear can also accompany sadness, especially in the case of grief and fear of death. Providing honest, age-appropriate information can help kids process this fear.
- Normalize children expressing themselves. Allow your child to talk about how they feel and talk to your kids about your feelings, too.
- Address underlying issues. If sadness is the result of an issue such as bullying, you will need to address this before the situation can be resolved.
- Seek support when required. Interventions such as counseling or therapy are important tools in the management of depression and persistent sadness or low mood.
- Utilize opportunities for regular physical exercise and socialization. These are important for keeping sadness and depression at bay.
Childhood depression is a serious condition and requires professional intervention. If your kid’s sadness is persistent or concerning, you should consult with your doctor for a professional assessment.