Is My Child’s Sadness Normal?

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Is My Child’s Sadness Normal?

Or Is It Depression?

Depression is usually associated with adults. The thought of a child being depressed is something that seems unimaginable to parents and caregivers, as depression seems like something that develops as a result of not having the tools to cope with long periods of sadness and feelings of hopelessness.

Studies continue to show, however, that children of all ages can meet the criteria for a depression diagnosis if they have persistent symptoms of sadness that impact their ability to function in their academic, social, and family lives.

While depression and sadness are not synonymous, persistent sadness and the symptoms that come with it will determine if your child is experiencing a depressive episode instead of a typical bout of sadness.

Sadness looks different for everyone. For some, they will cry a lot and have difficulty stopping. Others may seem withdrawn and refuse to do things they used to enjoy doing. Some may become irritable and engage in angry outbursts and tantrum behaviour.

Self-deprecating statements and being extremely hard on themselves is another possible expression of sadness. Some even express their sadness in the form of physical pain like headaches, stomach aches, or complaints of other illness.

Let’s discuss how to know when your child’s behaviours are typical expressions of sadness and when they may be moving toward depression, which may need professional treatment.


What’s Normal and What’s Not?

Sadness is a common emotion that children experience, for a variety of reasons. Sadness, like any emotion, has been maintained throughout the evolutionary history of human beings for a reason.

Psychologists and researchers have long looked into the functions of our various negative emotions and have found that each one serves a purpose of either protection, learning, or growth.

Sadness, for example, is said to help people develop the ability to discern what is acceptable and unacceptable to them, to motivate someone to change the circumstances creating their sadness, to improve their ability to communicate their needs, and to learn and develop better judgment and awareness in life.

Sadness even helps people develop creativity. These are all skills that parents want their children to develop, but seeing our kids sad is difficult. We all want to be happy and emotionally healthy, and we want this even more for our children.

Then, our inclination is to alleviate our children’s sad feelings any way we can. Sometimes, the better strategy is actually to help them work through their sadness instead of around it.

But what sad feelings should a child be able to work through on their own (or with the help of a parent), and what sad feelings are more persistent and problematic, that may require the help of a professional?


Normal Sadness in Childhood

The following symptoms of sadness are considered developmentally appropriate for children:

  • Tearfulness and crying that is short in duration and connected to a sad/disappointing event or situation. For example, a child may cry when disappointed about not being able to get a toy at the grocery store, but they are able to calm down once they leave the store.

  • Wanting to be alone, withdrawing briefly from social interaction when in a sad mood. For instance, a child who withdraws to their room when they are upset about a situation involving siblings or parents, but they can return for dinner.

  • Irritability and some tantrum behaviours (yelling, screaming, throwing self on floor, whining, etc.) that are short in duration and connected to feeling sadness or disappointment, some kids’ express sadness with anger. For example, a parent tells a child they need to go to bed and removes screen time privileges. The child may be sad but react with a tantrum. In these situations, once the trigger is no longer a concern, they should be able to recover without much difficulty.

  • Not wanting to participate in fun or exciting activities during periods of a sad mood. In the moment when a child is disappointed or upset, they may refuse to continue playing in a sports game when they got “out.” That’s typical for children.

  • Infrequent expressions of frustration or making self-deprecating statements as a result of feeling upset with themselves. Some children will say things like, “I am a bad kid,” or “I can’t do anything right!” when they are frustrated and sad about their behaviour.

  • Appearing tired or lethargic during times of sadness. Often, if children are expressing any of the above symptoms of sadness, it may be accompanied with a time afterward where they seem more tired and may need to rest in order to help them recuperate.


Childhood Sadness that May Require Professional Assistance

The following is a list of depressive behaviours — they’re more persistent and affect a child’s overall functioning. If your child has experienced some, or all, of these symptoms for longer than two weeks, you may benefit from speaking with a mental health professional to determine if your child has depression and to get them help:

  • Persistent sad, unhappy, low mood throughout most of the day for longer than two weeks. This is a general “down” mood that does not seem to have upswings or crying spells that appear to have no trigger and are difficult to stop.

  • Accelerated temper tantrums that occur frequently and seem to have no real triggers. Frequent expressions of low frustration tolerance that are not typical with your child’s normal listening and obedience skills.

  • Consistent patterns of negative self-talk or self-deprecating statements about themselves, their abilities, etc. Children who do this may not be able to identify any strengths about themselves and may argue with others who try to present some.

  • Personalizing situations - feeling guilty about things that aren’t their fault. Feeling responsible for other people’s emotions or actions, even when they are not centred in a conflict or situation.

  • Anxiety symptoms: worrying or predicting negative things will happen in the future. This may happen frequently and excessively. Negativity and assuming the worst can be a symptom of depression in children.

  • Physical complaints: stomach-aches and headaches, or other physical symptoms that cannot be ruled out by a physician as a medical concern. This can be experienced by children as actual medical concerns, even if there is no medical cause. It can also be used as an attempt to stay home from school or other engagements by claiming they are feeling these symptoms.

  • Excessive grogginess and needing more sleep than usual. Long or multiple naps, sleeping later, feeling less rested in the morning, etc., can be symptoms of depression.

  • Refusing to participate in social functions with family or friends; isolating self at school or on playdates. This may look like a child refusing to be flexible with a peer he or she normally enjoys playing with and playing alone.

  • Declining interest in activities that they usually enjoy, for longer than two weeks. For example, if a child who is typically very passionate about soccer complains about going to practices and games for an extended period of time.

  • Struggles with falling asleep or staying asleep. Nightmares or ruminating thoughts can contribute to difficulties sleeping and can be associated with depression symptoms, as well.

  • Difficulty concentrating, staying focused in school. This may be indicated by grades plummeting or teacher reports that your child is more distractible than usual, or that they are refusing to participate appropriately in class or with other kids.

  • General, persistent social skills issues. Struggling to get along with kids at school, feeling like an outcast, appearing to be bullied or bullying others.

If you are noticing or experiencing these symptoms with your child, it is recommended that you seek assistance from a mental health professional to help improve their ability to cope with symptoms of depression.

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