Sadness and Depression in Kids and Teens

Are you worried about your child’s emotional wellness? Are they tearful or withdrawn? Are they showing signs of anger or exhaustion? It’s normal for children (and adults, too) to feel sad from time to time, but it’s important to know the difference between feeling sad and clinical depression.

If you are concerned about your child’s mood and behavior, they may need help. Dig deeper into whether your child’s sadness is really depression by learning the signs.

It’s OK and normal to feel sad sometimes

Feeling a wide range of emotions is normal and good, especially for kids and teens. “Give your children space and time when they feel sad. Let the feelings come, and know that their feelings may change from day to day,” says Jody Baumstein, LCSW, a licensed therapist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life.

Whether they are reacting to a mean comment, they just had their heart broken or they didn’t make varsity, it’s important for kids to experience both the highs and lows of life. Resilient people (those who can handle life’s ups and downs) learn and grow from both the good and the bad.

What to expect, and do, when your child is feeling sad

Kids are constantly experiencing change and facing challenges big and small (from waking up on time to friendship troubles, switching schools, a breakup or the death of a loved one). “When faced with challenges, kids can respond in different ways,” says Baumstein. “Sometimes they respond with anger, sometimes with sadness and others by avoiding the issue.”

When children are sad, they tend to:

  • Feel down or be tearful.
  • Be irritable (i.e., cranky or on edge).
  • Feel anxious or worried.
  • Lack interest in activities or things they used to enjoy.
  • Show changes in mood, appetite or sleep.

These are all normal and acceptable reactions to sadness.

Help your child by:

  • Asking open-ended questions rather than yes or no questions to encourage them to open up.
  • Actively listening. Try to listen without reacting (or judging) and ask your child to clarify anything you don’t understand.
  • Working on coping skills. Suggest taking a quiet break, going for a walk, hugging a pet, taking a few deep breaths or another coping skill to help calm your child down.

pdf icon
Download a list of coping skills.

How hormones and brain development affect kids and teens

When a child is nearing puberty, it’s important to be patient with their behavior. There’s a lot going on in pre-pubescent kids’ minds that we can’t see.

In adolescence, the brain is essentially “under construction,” working to connect emotional centers of the brain to areas that control judgment and problem solving. In fact, the rational center of the brain isn’t fully formed until around 25 years of age.

Until their brains are completely developed, teens are more vulnerable to social pressures and less likely to think before acting or to stop an action when it’s already in progress. Add stress, sex and growth hormones into the mix, and you can see how much pressure a teen’s mind and body are under.

While it’s important to understand hormonal behavior, it’s also important not to write off some behaviors as a teen being hormonal. Read on for tips on telling the difference.

When sadness turns into depression

“Sadness is a normal emotion … everyone experiences it,” says Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN, a psychiatric nurse with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life. “It’s important for parents and trusted adults to know when a child is experiencing more than just sadness.”

Children can suffer from depression just like adults. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates 3.2 million children in the U.S., aged 12 to 17, had at least one major depressive episode in 2017.

The important difference between a child feeling sad and a child suffering from depression is the persistence of symptoms. Your child may be experiencing a major depressive episode if they are showing signs of sadness that become persistent (for at least 2 weeks), excessive or begin to impact their functioning.

If your child is showing signs of depression, or if their sadness is negatively affecting their schoolwork, social life or physical well-being, consider speaking with their pediatrician or looking for a therapist to help.