Is Your Child Depressed or Just Moody?

Legacy is happy to have a local guest blogger this month, Dr. Sarah Atkinson!   


As every parent knows all too well, the childhood and teen years may be fraught with drama. The stresses of school, social and home lives, sports and other activities are challenging for both children and their families.

A child’s mood can change from moment to moment, and her stressors can lead to sadness, anger, withdrawal, irritability, outbursts and more. These reactions might lead you and your child to conclude that he or she is depressed.

But is it really depression?

Childhood depression is every bit as real and serious an illness as is adult depression; in fact, many adults who suffer from depression first had symptoms as children or teens. But there is a difference between clinical depression (also called major depressive disorder – MDD – or major depression) and just the everyday “blues.” And since children aren’t always able to identify or describe their symptoms as clearly as adults can – or might not want to talk about them at all – it is important to know when to just keep a watchful parent’s eye, and when to speak to the pediatrician.

Though statistics on childhood depression are difficult to establish, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that in any given year, just under 3% of children ages 8 to 15 will suffer from major depression. So, the odds are that your sad child is just that… sad. True depression is distinguished from normal sadness in that it typically interferes with daily life or activities for extended periods of time (typically two weeks or more).

There is also a distinction between clinical depression and a “life-situational” depression. A breakup with a best friend, or boyfriend or girlfriend, may well induce behavioral and mood changes, and this is entirely normal. Developmentally, children and adolescents need to experience expectable life events – including unwelcome and unpleasant ones – and learn to manage the turbulence of life. But it’s cause for more concern if your child appears sad, blue or down for several days, or is no longer as interested in friends, activities, or school work and there is no clear reason you can identify.

Moody Child

In young people, clinical depression may be evidenced by:

  • Prolonged sadness, anxiousness, irritability, crying spells
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities, social withdrawal
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, moving or talking more slowly
  • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or doing school work
  • Changes in grades, attendance or behavior in school
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment
  • Of course, talk of death or suicide, or suicide attempts, call for immediate action.

If your child exhibits any of these behaviors or symptoms, have a talk with your pediatric provider. They can help determine whether additional evaluation and care is appropriate, and discuss options such as counseling or medication. There are many excellent and effective therapies available, and the treatment outlook for children with depression is generally very good.

Your child’s pediatrician or mental health provider might also speak to you about clinical trials, such as those we conduct at Finger Lakes Clinical Research. Clinical trials, or studies, are closely-regulated and monitored research protocols used to develop and understand new therapies. Certain, carefully-screened children, might qualify to participate in a clinical trial and have the opportunity to try new treatments.

Kids are kids, and chances are that your child’s moods are just a normal part of growing up, needing only your good, loving and patient parenting – whether that means giving attention (or space), offering understanding, or perhaps exercising a little discipline. But knowing what to listen and watch for in your child’s words and behavior will help you know when he or she needs something more.

SarahDr. Atkinson is a Board Certified psychiatrist and the Director and Principal Investigator at Finger Lakes Clinical Research (FLCR). She has conducted close to one-hundred clinical trials, primarily in pediatric and adult central nervous system disorders, including: major depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anxiety, among others.