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Even Toddlers Get the Blues

Your 3-year-old isn’t her usual spry self. She no longer brightens at the sight of you first thing in the morning. She refuses to eat, and she hasn’t been this cranky since she first started teething. Instead of tagging along with her older siblings or contentedly scribbling in her favorite Blues Clues coloring book, she gazes blankly out the window, listless and dejected. Could she be depressed?

Depression in Preschoolers

Like most people, you probably assume preschoolers are too young to get the blues. But new research shows clinical depression knows no age. Depression — and even thoughts of suicide — are as likely to affect toddlers and adolescents as they are adults.

In an ongoing National Institute of Mental Health study, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine revealed that children experience the same symptoms of depression often found in adults, and with the same severity.

Children are more depressed than ever before, prompting a major Surgeon General report on children’s mental health, and sending our nation’s behavioral health caseload soaring to record highs.

According to the National Mental Health Association, one in three American children suffers from depression. Magellan Behavior Health, the leading mental health provider in the United States, reports that more than 3,500 of its nearly 149,000 members with depressive disorders are under age 10.

In spite of the staggering statistics, depression remains the most under-diagnosed and under-treated illness among children and adolescents. Unlike the reddish, raised bumps of chickenpox or the leaky nose of the common cold, the symptoms of depression are not so concrete and, consequently, often go unnoticed by unsuspecting parents.

Detecting Depression

What are the signs of childhood depression? What behaviors should parents look out for? Toddlers and children who are depressed are persistently irritable, withdrawn and lethargic, says Dr. Elizabeth Rody, child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical director for Magellan Behavioral Health’s New Jersey Regional Service Center.

“Depressed children lose interest in activities that once captivated them,” says Rody. “Like adults who are depressed, an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and doom prevails.”

Other symptoms of pediatric depression parents should be aware of include:

  • excessive crying and persistent sadness
  • lack of enthusiasm or motivation
  • increased agitation and irritability
  • chronic fatigue and lack of energy
  • withdrawal from family, friends and activities once enjoyed
  • changes in eating and sleeping habits (significant weight loss or gain, excessive sleep, insomnia)
  • frequent complaints of physical problems, such as stomachaches and headaches
  • lack of concentration and memory loss
  • feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • major developmental delays (in toddlers — not walking, talking or expressing self)
  • play that involves harm toward self or others, or that revolves around sad or morbid themes
  • recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Even Toddlers Get the Blues

Kim Lachance

APA Reference
Lachance, K. (2020). Even Toddlers Get the Blues. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.