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Michele Borba
BY Michele Borba

Could Depression Be a Problem for Your Preschooler? 9 Signs to Watch Out For

Depression was once thought to be an impossible ailment for young children. Yet research has found that depression in young children is real and can be identified as young as two years of age. The diagnosis, though rare, is becoming more acceptable in child psychiatry.

Depression can be devastating and have a lasting effect on a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. The long-term consequences are too severe to ignore. The best news is, when diagnosed early and properly treated, kids almost always can be helped to feel better, and the earlier parents seek treatment the better. The key is to make sure to get the right diagnosis and treatment.

If you are concerned that your child’s sadness goes beyond the usual “bad day” or bout of tears, here are some common signs to watch for.

1. Pervasive, unfounded sadness

A young depressed child suffers from sadness that lingers and inhibits his or her ability to function and enjoy life. Playing or doing everyday activities or games that should be enjoyable can turn into somber topics or themes. And the child’s misery and tears persist. While many children do have legitimate reasons to be sad—such as the death of a significant loved one, an impending divorce, or abuse—the depressed child’s sorrow is unfounded, and it lasts.

What you’re looking for in depression is prolonged sadness and for the child to have no reason to be sad. (Grandma isn’t dying. Daddy isn’t being deployed. Kitty didn’t get hurt.) Depressed children cannot be coaxed out of their sorrow. The child’s unhappiness is chronic and lasting, and without the right help their misery become debilitating.

2. Lack of joy

A depressed child has little joy or fun doing normal everyday activities that should be enjoyable and carefree. While other preschoolers are content to play with blocks or dolls, or go down the slide, a depressed child often shows little happiness in everyday kid activities.

3. Guilt or internalized shame

The depressed young child is often highly sensitive and internalizes a scolding or negative comment.

4. Marked anxiety that is not warranted

Researchers find that most depressed preschoolers also suffer from excessive worrying and are four times more likely to have an anxiety disorder at school age.

5. Easily frustrated

While most preschoolers have poor impulse control, the depressed child can show low tolerance for frustration, marked restlessness, and irritability in addition to the anxiety, guilt, or lack of joy.

6. Frequent illnesses

A depressed child may have frequent and unexplained stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue.

7. Failure to “bounce back”

Most kids get over typical childhood trials and tribulations (the toy broke, the hamster died, he was sent to time out for hitting) in an hour or two. A depressed child can dwell over the same issue for an uncommonly long time. While other kids seem to bounce back and get on with their lives, the depressed child lacks the ability to cope.

8. Sadness is evident in different settings with different people

The child’s misery lasts even when the child plays or does everyday activities that should be fun or ones that the child previously enjoyed. You may see other typical preschool behaviors crop up (lack of appetite, sleep problems), increase (more frequent temper tantrums), become more intense (nightmares, separation anxiety) and/or show up at daycare, with Grandma, on play-dates, etc.

These behaviors usually last several weeks, though often not at steady intervals. Hint: Track those behaviors on a calendar as to their frequency and intensity. It may help to pinpoint a pattern that can be easily missed in daily child interaction.

9. As a parent, you just know something’s wrong

Your instinct or gut feeling tells you something is not right with your child regardless of what everyone else says. You know this behavior is not normal and not typical for your child.

Your pediatrician may not be trained to spot early childhood depression, so seek medical advice of a child psychologist or child psychiatrist who specializes in early childhood depression and anxiety. Call your county mental health, a pediatric hospital, a university facility that provides mental health services for young children, the American Psychological Association or American Academy of Pediatrics.

No one knows your child better than you. If you suspect something is wrong, chances are you’re right. Get help!

Michele Borba

Written on March 20, 2017 by:

Dr. Michele Borba, is an educational psychologist and expert in bullying and character development. She has appeared on TODAY, Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, CNN, MSNBC, Dr. Oz, Dr. Drew, and The Early Show, among others, and author of 24 books including UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World. For more information, visit Michele at, and on Facebook, and Twitter.