Childhood Anxiety and Depression: What Parents Should Know


Young boy holding up a paper heart, representing childhood anxiety and depression.

It can be difficult to understand how a child could become depressed or anxious, but these mind states are complex.

Just because everything seems fine, doesn’t mean it will be in the minds of children.

This article will examine what depression and anxiety look like in kids (children and teens) and what can be done to treat them.

As a child develops, it’s normal for them to experience moments of disappointment, sadness, or hopelessness. These are necessary stepping stones for children to learn to cope with the challenges of living.

However, depression and anxiety extend beyond single moments and learning lessons. These conditions look more like chronic low moods, despondency, and frequently being afraid.

Children as young as 3 can be diagnosed with clinical depression. And it’s becoming more common.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 2.7 million children were diagnosed with depression from 2016 to 2019. 

In addition, “having ever been diagnosed with either anxiety or depression” among children 6–17 increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8% in 2007. Those numbers have continued to steadily rise.

Signs of mental health in children like affection, positivity, curiosity, resilience, and self-control may not be present in a child experiencing depression or anxiety.

But, it’s important to note that depression doesn’t always look like depression, nor does anxiety look like anxiety.

A child may never speak about or show outward symptoms of their mental state. They might instead express their feelings by acting out. A child or teen might cause trouble in an attempt to hide their internal struggle, or they might try to convince others that their lack of motivation is just laziness.

The telltale signs of childhood depression are a loss of enjoyment in once-loved activities and a sense of hopelessness about things that can be changed.

Here are some more signs:


    • Feeling hopeless or irritable much of the time.

    • Not having an interest in doing anything playful or fun.

    • Changes in sleep patterns, appetite, or energy levels (having too much or too little of each).

    • Difficulty focusing.

    • Expressing feelings of worthlessness or guilt.

Anxious children may exhibit similar symptoms, but anxiety is more about frequent, nagging fears that interfere with school, home, or social activities.

Here are some signs of high anxiety in a child:


    • Becoming more afraid when their parents aren’t around.

    • Having intense fear about something specific that they avoid at all costs. 

    • Being socially anxious and having a difficult time making friends.

    • Being constantly preoccupied with the future and things they have no control over.

    • Having episodes of high anxiety or panic in specific situations.


Anxiety can also look like insomnia, frequent headaches, stomach aches, or irritability.

In the most extreme cases of childhood anxiety and depression, a kid may turn to self-harm or report having thoughts of suicide.

Things like this are baffling to parents on the outside looking in, especially for what should be a carefree young kid. Where could feelings like that come from? What does harming oneself accomplish?

First, the modern world tests young people’s minds in ways we couldn’t have imagined in prior years.

Second, the causes of self-harm are highly individual. They are rooted in environmental factors, biological sensitivity, relationships, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and physical health to name a few.

However, the intent in self-harm is commonly emotional release.

When the stresses of life build on a child (or an adult for that matter), and they are met with challenges they feel they cannot overcome (e.g., bullying, academic stress, loneliness, low self-esteem, perfectionism, abuse, bottled anger) the emotional tension can erupt in an act of self-harm.

According to Children’s

Despite the damage it causes, self-harm serves as a relief valve for the intense negative feelings a child does not know how to deal with. It offers a sense of control over uncontrollable inner trouble.

Healing from self-harm involves removing the stigma of shame from the act, and understanding what triggers these events so that the child can become aware of and address their sources.

The two frontline treatments for childhood anxiety and depression are Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavior Therapy(CBT). Both involve working with children to teach them how to address their emotions in more effective ways.

CBT is about exploring how thoughts influence emotions, in addition to identifying the problematic beliefs that drive depressive symptoms and anxious behaviors.

In DBT, parents get involved in the therapy process. They are taught DBT lessons in tandem with their kids, mainly in the form of coping skills, problem-solving methods, and emotional regulation tools.

In turn, parents are asked to…


    • Model adaptive behaviors for their child.

    • Address maladaptive responses in their children.

    • Validate and accept their child in appropriate ways.


Beyond addressing the mindsets and behaviors that lead to depression and anxiety, we can’t forget the basics of mental health that ring true for both children and adults:

    • Healthy eating plans that include fruits, vegetables, and plenty of hydration.

    • Reasonable sleep schedules and allowed time for rest.

    • Some regular physical activity that promotes physical health and helps to limit screen time on technology.

The dynamics of the parent-child relationship are addressed as well, because that relationship is crucial to a child’s ability to adapt to stress and maintain healthy self-esteem.

If you feel like your child is struggling, know that there are therapeutic techniques that work effectively and that your child will be heard, understood, and treated properly if you decide to take them into therapy.

It’s ok to not have all the answers. As complex as the modern world is, and as life is, there’s no shame in looking for professional help.

Therapy can be a powerful healing and growing experience for both you and your child.