Anxiety and Depression in Children: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments

Fear and worries among children are a common occurrence, and may sometimes cause sadness or hopelessness. Sometimes, these fears or worries are ignored as they appear as normal or ordinary phenomena. However, while some forms of worries and fears are typical in children, it’s important to note that in their persistent forms, they might indicate the onset or escalation of anxiety or depression.

CDC reports that anxiety is diagnosed in about 7% of children aged between 3 and 17 years, while depression is diagnosed in about 3.2% of children aged between 3 and 17 years.  Due to the vulnerable nature of children, mental health illnesses, such as anxiety and depression may impact their quality of life and negatively affect the pursuit of critical daily routines like schooling.

Common causes

Anxiety is mostly influenced by a number of issues, which may include (but not limited to):

  • Shifting between schools or homes- a child will often fall into anxiety caused by anticipations of how she will cope or acclimatize to the new school or neighborhood.
  • Lasting long periods without meeting the parents- a child is likely to suffer anxiety caused by insecurity after a long period without seeing his/her parent(s).
  • Bullying- a child is likely to enter into anxiety after encountering abuse from a bully.
  • Fear of outcomes- a child may experience anxiety caused by fear of outcomes of an exam, especially if the exam is determinant of whether s/he moves on to the next class.
  • Sickness of a close friend or relative- a child may experience anxiety on learning that his/her close relative or a close friend is admitted to hospital.

Common causes of depression in children include:

  • Family hardships- a child who is constantly witnessing his/her parent or sibling experience hardships, such as financial difficulties may exhibit depression symptoms
  • Emotional or physical abuse- a child who has recently or for a while been exposed to some form of abuse, such as sexual abuse or some form of domestic violence, the child is likely to succumb to depression.
  • Trauma- after experiencing a horrifying occurrence, such as the loss of a loved one, an accident,  or bullying, a child experiences depression
  • Divorce/separation of parents- the fear of what will become of him/her, and imagination of a potentially difficult life may cause depression in a child, following the parents’ breakup.
  • Making consistently failing tempts- a child may get depressed after several failing attempts trying to achieve an outcome.
  • Self-esteem issues- a child who looks down upon himself/herself may often display signs of depression.
  • Parental neglect– a child who has not reliable support system is vulnerable to a rough life, which may lead him/her to depression


Different children may display distinct symptoms which indicate the onset of anxiety and/or depression. The following signs may indicate that your child or student is suffering anxiety or depression:

  • Signs of anxiety in children
  • Shaking and sweating profusely
  • Sadness and frequently sobbing
  • Appearing afraid of social places
  • Episodes of intense fear associated with heart-pounding, heavy breathing, or intense panicking
  • Negative thoughts about
  • Frequent headaches, tummy aches and feeling low and unwell

Signs of depression in children may include:

  • Feeling tired or low of energy and crying frequently
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Appearing distant and not concentrating in class.
  • Use of self-disparaging language, talking lowly about self
  • Withdrawal and loss of interest in activities that the child usually enjoys
  • Hesitation or resisting to go to school or to face some people
  • Sleeplessness
  • Restlessness and feeling more lethargic than usual
  • Attempts for self-harm or actual self-destructive behaviors like cutting of skin or head-hitting the wall

Treating depression and anxiety in children

Anxiety and depression might turn chronic if proper interventions are not provided. They may also lead to costly effects, such as suicides, poor academic performances, inability to sustain healthy relationships, among other problems. It’s thus not advisable to ignore the sight of symptoms that might indicate anxiety or depression in your child.

There is a need to seek immediate medical intervention to ensure successfully manage and overcome their anxiety. Effective diagnosis of depression or anxiety in children necessitates the presence of the parent or guardian who will help in explaining the eminent symptoms. Lab testing and physical examination are also important diagnostic tests conducted to determine whether the condition is anxiety, depression or any other mental problem. The tests are crucial to ensure that the relevant remedy is given to the child.

A variety of effective treatment options may be used to treat a child diagnosed with anxiety or depression. However, medication and cognitive behavioral therapy are most commonly used for children.

Medication may not be an exemption, especially if the condition is at extreme or severe levels.  The mental health professional will recommend the necessary medication, such as anti-depressants (such as Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)) to tame the situation.

The choice of medication and dosage might depend on the age of the child, and/or severity of the condition. Close monitoring of the effects of the medication is made, as they are known to arouse negative effects like suicidal behaviors, though this is rare.  Read more on the effectiveness of medications in treating depression and anxiety in children on treatment FAQs.

Many people use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat mental health issues in children. This treatment model involves imparting the child with essential skills in managing causes of anxiety or depression. The mental health professional will teach the child how to define or identify negative (bad) thought patterns that may be harmful, and instead, replace the negative thinking behaviors or patterns with positive ones.

For instance, a child can play football or jog in the field when s/he senses the onset of negative thoughts. To ensure that the child adapts to what is taught, the care provider might give homework to practice what was learned. The parents or even teachers are involved in the whole process, as they are critical in monitoring and aiding the child’s progress.

In many cases, a combination of therapy and medication is used to increase the efficiency of treatment.  For more information, click the ADAA resource.

Last Updated on September 22, 2021