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Sadness in Children

How to Know if Your Child's Sadness Is Depression


Updated October 17, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Concerned parents often wonder when sadness in children is a normal reaction and when it may be a sign of depression.

Sadness is a common emotion that everyone will feel at some time. However, persistent sadness is a hallmark symptom of depression. According to the DSM-IV, depressed mood, marked by feelings of sadness or emptiness, for at least two weeks is a symptom of major depressive disorder (MDD).

The emotion of sadness may be clearly identifiable by age 3, according to a study of the emotions of depressed and at-risk preschoolers in The Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychology in 2009.

Children who have high levels of sadness are more withdrawn from family, friends, and activities. Withdrawal may lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, which promotes sadness.

Gender Differences in Sadness

Sadness is considered to be an internalizing symptom -- these symptoms are less disruptive than externalizing ones, like anger and irritability.

Some research indicates that depressed girls experience sadness and other internalizing behaviors more than depressed boys.

When It May Be Depression

If your child has recently experienced a significant disappointment, end of an important relationship, or death of a loved one, temporary feelings of sadness are appropriate.

However, if you observe any of the following signs in your child, it is important to have her evaluated by a professional, as they may be signs of depression:

  • Feelings of sadness that last for more than 2 weeks
  • Feelings of emptiness that last for more than 2 weeks
  • Sadness along with other symptoms of depression
  • Frequent crying spells
  • Tearfulness
  • Inability to experience joy in things she formerly enjoyed

While it can certainly be difficult to identify the difference between sadness and depression in your child, providing extra love and attention will help to her to feel supported through a difficult time.

Helping your child find a safe and effective treatment is important. The sooner that she gets effective treatment, the sooner she can begin to take pleasure in the joys of her childhood.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association: 2000.

Boris Birmaher, MD, David Brent, MD, et al.Practice Parameter for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents With Depressive Disorders. Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 46(11). November 2007. 1503-1526.

Depression and Suicide in Children and Adolescents. A Report of the Surgeon General. Access: 02/10/2011. http://mentalhealth.about.com/library/sg/chapter3/blsec5.htm

Joan L. Luby. "Preschool Depression: The Importance of Identification of Depression Early in Development." Current Trends in Psychological Science. August 2010; 19(4): 525-537.

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  3. Depression
  4. Who's at Risk?
  5. Age Groups
  6. Child Depression
  7. Signs/Symptoms
  8. Sadness in Children a Sign of Depression

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