Dealing with Depressive Thinking in Children

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Depressive thinking is when a person is constantly hearing subliminal messages about themselves. These tend to go along the lines of, “I am worthless. I always make mistakes. Everyone would be happier without me.” But children can be taught to recognize these thoughts and replace them with more helpful thoughts.

Recognizing Signs of Depressive Thinking in Children

Depressive thinking differs with each child suffering from a depressive disorder. Since parents or caretakers cannot directly read the minds of children, how can they know if a child is depressed? According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), depressed children and teens display signs such as:

  • Isolation from family, friends and pets
  • Loss of interest in activities that used to get the child excited
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Getting into trouble at school
  • Claims from the child that they hate his or her life

Do not make the mistake of thinking this is a passing phase. According to NIMH, depression in childhood usually leads to severe depression in adulthood. The child needs help as soon as possible.


Telling stories is often the best way to both get a child’s attention and to let them know that they are not alone in suffering from depressive thoughts. Depressive ailments tend to run in family lines, so perhaps you also suffer from depression. If you do not suffer from depression and depressive thinking, ask a relative or friend who does (or has done in the past) to talk to the child. This person would have to be experienced with the symptoms of depression and how he or she was able to manage it.

Telling a testimony about one’s personal battle with depression and depressive thoughts can not only help the child, but the storyteller, according to “The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning” (Bantam Books; 1992.) Although relating one’s own story is a hallmark of twelve-step programs, it can also help for people suffering from mental illness.

Let the child interrupt the story as many times as he or she wishes. The child may want to know just what the storyteller’s depressive thoughts or childhood was like. The child may also start talking about what is bothering him or her. Getting the child to talk is actually more important than letting the storyteller talk.


Now that the child knows that he or she is not alone in having depressive thoughts, explain that these thoughts are merely a symptom of an illness. The illness, depression, instead of causing bleeding or a runny nose, is instead causing the child to think terrible thoughts. This is a normal symptom of depression and does not mean that the child is actually bad, worthless or morally bankrupt.

One useful way of teaching a child to distinguish depressive thoughts from reality is to teach them spotting. Spotting is a technique developed by Dr. Abraham A. Low, the founder of Recovery International (also known as the Abraham Low Self-Help Systems.)

Spotting is thinking about one’s own thoughts. For example, one common thought of depressed children is “I can’t do anything right.” This is an exaggeration. The child needs to know that there are many things he or she can do right. That way, whenever the child thinks, “I can’t do anything right,” the child can think, “Wait – I spot that thought was an exaggeration. Here are the things I can do right …”

Learning how to spot depressive or negative thoughts takes time. The parent or caretaker may want to take a few minutes a week with the child to practice spotting. The parent could say something like, “Your best friend just told you that she can never do anything right. What would you tell her?”

Professional Help for Depressive Thinking in Children

Storytelling and spotting can help children cope with the everyday trivialities of life. But children with depression may still need professional medical help. Depending upon their individual circumstances, they may need to enter cognitive behavior therapy sessions. However, storytelling and spotting can be used in conjunction with talk therapy or any medications prescribed.

It is important to let a depressed child know that they are not alone, that they are loved and that they are not helpless under the onslaught of depression. Through moderating even some of their depressive thoughts, they can learn how to help themselves. This can be a valuable skill the child will need for the rest of his or her life or until a cure is found for depression.


National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved October 17, 2010. “How Do Children and Adolescents Experience Depression?”


“Peace of Body, Peace of Mind: Practical, Effective Techniques for Mental Fitness.” Rose VanSickle. PLJ Unlimited; 1996.

“The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.” Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. Bantam Books; 1992.