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November 3, 2022
August 31, 2023

Depression vs Sadness: What’s the Difference and How to Help?

While it can sometimes be difficult for parents to distinguish between depression and the normal vicissitudes of childhood and adolescence, differentiating between sadness and depression plays a vital part in addressing more serious emotional downturns. Feelings of despair and dejection should never be ignored. 

Everyone feels sad sometimes—even children, who are navigating the ups and downs of our sometimes messy world for the first time. While depression isn’t overly common in very young children aged 3-7, according to the NIH’s most recent figures, 20.1% of the U.S. population aged 12-17 has suffered at least one major depressive episode (higher among adolescent girls [29.2%] compared to boys [11.5%]). It is extremely important to treat the condition quickly and effectively. 

While it can sometimes be difficult for parents to distinguish between depression and the normal vicissitudes of childhood and adolescence, differentiating between sadness and depression plays a vital part in addressing more serious emotional downturns. Feelings of despair and dejection should never be ignored. 

Here’s how parents can distinguish between sadness vs depression—plus, when it’s time to call in a professional for help and guidance.

Depression vs Sadness: What’s the Difference?

Sadness and depression share many common characteristics. For instance, if your child is grumpy and spends an unusual amount of time in their bedroom, they absolutely could be depressed—or alternatively, they could be sad about a recent break-up with a friend.

While the biggest difference between sadness and depression is in duration (sadness tends to be temporary, while depression can last much longer), addressing depression quickly is essential. 

Here are some other ways you can tell the difference between depression vs sadness, including:

How long are the feelings lasting? 

Sadness tends to be a transient response to a specific incident or life event. Depression often persists for weeks or months. If your child seems sad for a significant duration—even when things are seemingly going great—these symptoms might indicate something more serious. 

How are the feelings impacting functioning? 

Sadness can absolutely affect your child’s mood or ability to do schoolwork, but depression can impair everything from your kid’s ability to concentrate to their interest in hobbies or friends. Is their sadness constant and impacting their daily routine? Are they isolating themselves? Pay close attention to these symptoms, their severity, and their duration.

Are there other symptoms? 

Depression goes far beyond feeling sad. You might notice your child eating or sleeping less (or more) or expressing feelings of worthlessness or guilt. They may also be irritable or low-energy. All of these are signs of depression.

In order to provide support and potentially get your child the treatment they need, it’s important to understand the difference between sadness and depression. 

What is Sadness?

Sadness is a normal emotion that we all experience. Dealing with disappointment, setbacks, challenges, and even a significant loss, is a bummer, and sadness is the natural human response that helps us process these complicated, sometimes contradictory feelings. Sadness is usually temporary and dissipates with time. 

Here are common indicators that your child is sad, rather than depressed:

They’ve recently been dealt a blow

Has a relationship just ended, or did they struggle with a test they were sure they would ace? Were they not picked for varsity soccer? It’s normal to feel sad in these circumstances, and a glum attitude shortly thereafter doesn’t indicate depression. Sadness simply demonstrates that your child is understanding and reacting to the world around them. Even the sadness from the passing of an important person, like a grandparents should lessen, with time. 

The feelings are temporary

Depression tends to linger for a long, long time—but sadness goes away eventually. While there’s no hard-and-fast sadness timeline, the National Institutes for Health indicates that a gloomy mood persisting longer than two weeks might be cause for concern.

What is Depression?

Depression is a complex and serious mood disorder requiring attention and intervention. In children, depression often manifests as a persistent low mood that is either unconnected to any specific event, or that lingers much longer than typical sadness or a normal period of grieving. Parents should learn to differentiate between the signs of depression and normal emotional fluctuations in order to get their children the help they need.

With depression, you’ll often see:

Persistent, pervasive changes in mood

Unlike sadness, depression lingers. Depressed children may experience long periods of sadness, irritability, or emotional numbness or malaise—even without external circumstances that might contribute to those feelings. 

Physical and cognitive symptoms

Depression extends beyond your kid’s mood and can impact their physical health, their behavior, and their cognitive patterns. You might see changes in appetite and sleep patterns, or a disinterest in things they previously adored, such as extracurriculars or spending time with friends. They also may struggle to concentrate on schoolwork. 

You’re the parent—and you know your child best. If mood, physical, and cognitive changes are affecting your child’s life, it’s likely time to talk to a licensed mental health professional. They can provide the kind of support needed to navigate these mental health challenges. Remember: It’s usually better to be proactive, rather than reactive. 

Can Sadness Lead to Depression?

If your kid is down in the dumps, it’s natural to wonder if their sadness could evolve into full-blown depression. While sadness is a common emotional response to the difficulties of life, there are factors that can increase a child’s propensity toward mental illness. 

Family history of depression

One of the primary contributing factors to depression is a family history of depression. If you, your spouse, or relatives have experienced depression, your child might be predisposed, too. One analysis from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that children descended from two or more “depression-affected generations” (in other words, if both a parent and grandparent experienced depression) were more likely to become depressed themselves.

However, this doesn’t mean your child won’t bounce back from difficulties, even if their family members were depressed. Another study evaluated the likelihood of depression based on both (a) experiencing a life event—like one that might lead to sadness—and (b) family history. The study found no clear indicators that having depressed relatives made you more likely to become depressed after a major life event

Exposure to chronic stress

Exposure to chronic stress could also cause sadness to tip over into depression. Perhaps your child is in a highly rigorous academic environment or a competitive sport—or just dealing with a lot. Research indicates that stressful life events can contribute to depression. If your child undergoes a number of difficult experiences one after the other, keep a close eye on their mood. Seeing a therapist proactively is never a bad idea.

Lack of coping mechanisms

Additionally, people with poor (or no) coping mechanisms are more inclined to develop depression. Work with your child to develop healthy ways to deal with their sadness, which can help them process their emotions until the sadness naturally wanes. 

Healthy coping mechanisms may include:

  • Mindfulness and breathing exercises
  • Physical exercises
  • Positive self-talk.

Is It Normal for My Child to Feel Sad?

Feeling sad is a natural part of growing up. Everyone feels sad once in a while, and some people are more prone to melancholy than others—but that doesn’t mean the sadness will tip over into depression. 

In fact, sadness can be a good sign: It indicates your child is experiencing normal human emotions, and is thus hopefully developing the skills needed to manage their feelings in healthy ways. 

Encourage your kid to express their emotions—including sadness. This might mean making art, talking through tough feelings, or crying. Working through their emotions creates a strong foundation for better mental health and hopefully instills a solid foundation of empathy for others experiencing sadness or depression. 

Speaking of empathy: It’s okay to be sad that your child feels sad. No matter how much it hurts your heart, resist the desire to try and “solve” your child’s negative feelings or smooth over difficult patches for them. Everyone must learn to handle hard emotions. It’s your job as parent to encourage open communication and create a safe environment where your child can navigate their feelings. 

When to Seek Help from a Mental Health Professional

If you’re uncertain whether your child is sad or depressed, never hesitate to seek help from a licensed mental health professional, such as a therapist, psychologist, or school counselor. Early intervention improves outcomes in depression, and studies indicate that ongoing emotional monitoring—like a feelings journal—can help prevent depression or lessen its impact

But how do you know when it’s time to call in the experts? Remember that sadness that lingers longer than two weeks, or significantly disrupts your child’s daily life, is a red flag. Are they irritable? Putting themselves down? Avoiding former beloved activities? They may be depressed. 

Experiencing sadness is a normal part of being a human. Still, even absent these factors, don’t discount your parental instinct. If your gut tells you that something is wrong, don’t hesitate to act. Intuition can help you recognize when your child needs extra support. 

Learning to tell if a child’s feelings are due to depression vs sadness can also help you recognize when it is time to seek help, and fortunately, there are proven treatments available to manage the condition. To get help for a child with depression, start with a free consultation from a licensed Handspring Health therapist today. 

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