Major depression is an illness that can affect people of any age, including children and teenagers.
Depression (also called clinical depression or a depressive disorder) is defined as a disorder in which feelings of sadness and loss of interest in activities persist, interfering with a person’s ability to function.
Signs of Depression in Children and Adolescents
In children and adolescents, signs may present themselves differently than in adults. The following signs can be helpful to be watchful for:
- Feeling sadness that won’t go away
- Feeling low self-esteem
- Experiencing a major change in sleeping and eating habits (eating or sleeping too much or too little)
- Exhibiting low energy or feeling bored
- Having a lack of focus
- Feeling nervous, irritable, angry and unable to relax
- Having difficulty with relationships
- Being frequently absent from school or having poor academic performance
- Thinking or expressing a desire to hurt oneself or die by suicide
Symptoms in Children and Adolescents
Children (boys and girls typically before the age of 10) with depression can have a variety of symptoms. They may have recurring physical symptoms such as stomachaches or headaches, and may also show non-physical symptoms such as irritability, anger, or hostility. A child which develops depression who used to frequently play with friends may now spend most of his or her time alone, without showing interest in things they once enjoyed. What can be tricky is that children with depression may not always seem sad; however, when asked directly, they are sometimes able to express that they feel sad or unhappy.
Adolescents (boys and girls typically aged 10 to 19) differ somewhat from children in their symptoms. While showing some of the same effects as children who are depressed, adolescents may also act out, do self-harming behaviors (such as cutting), and have difficulty maintaining or withdraw from relationships and activities. Depressed adolescents will also at times abuse alcohol or other drugs, as a way of trying to cope with their confusing feelings and generally feel better.
Both children and adolescents who are depressed may talk about suicide or say that they wish they were dead. Indeed, depressed children and adolescents are at an increased risk of dying by suicide. Parents who are concerned that their child is considering suicide should seek immediate professional care.
How Likely is Depression in Youth?
Major depression affects 1 percent of preschoolers, 2 percent of children and 5-8 percent of adolescents. The occurrence of depression is, unfortunately, increasing. Boys and girls are equally at risk until adolescence, when depression in girls occurs far more often.
Why Do Children and Adolescents Develop Depression?
While the exact cause of depression for each individual is unknown, we do know that genetic and environmental factors both contribute. Genetics can include a family member with a history of depression, while environmental factors can stem from loss, abuse, neglect, or trauma. What is not always understood is that children in very stable, low-stress homes can also develop depression. It is clear that there is a lot we still have to learn about this illness.
How Is Depression Treated?
Comprehensive treatment can include both individual and family psychotherapy. Sessions are usually conducted in the therapist’s office at a usual frequency of once per week and about an hour. Therapy enables kids and their families to understand the nature of depression and to develop effective problem-solving strategies for life stressors that are associated with depression.
Choosing the right therapist and type of therapy are important. Two specific types of therapy – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Interpersonal Therapy – have shown to be most effective in treating depression in children and adolescents. Make sure that the mental health professional you choose has the training to work with children and adolescents and that you and your child feel comfortable and safe with them.
Treatment may include the use of medication therapy as well as psychotherapy. In many cases, the preferred medication treatment is an antidepressant called a SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). There are as well other effective medication options. Rather than the stereotype of medication treatment “messing with” one’s mind, it actually helps to reestablish the normal balance of chemicals in the brain.
If you think you or your child might have depression, it is important to seek support and treatment right away. There are safe and effective options for treating depression, a real illness which requires medical treatment as any illness does. For help, parents should ask their primary care provider to refer them to a qualified mental health professional. In children and adolescents, treatment is most successful when the parents and family are involved.
Depression in Children and Teens. (2013, July). Retrieved from https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/The-
Dulcan, M. (2016). Dulcan’s Textbook of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Second Edition (2nd
ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association Publishing
Psychotherapy for Children and Adolescents: Definition. (2017, February). Retrieved from
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