Recognizing Childhood Depression

Many people know the warning signs of depression in adults, which can include persistent feelings of sadness, social withdrawal, and lack of interest or pleasure in activities. However, parents are sometimes unaware that depression may look very different in children and adolescents.

Children with depression may complain of headaches or stomach pain, may act out, become irritable or agitated in addition to feeling sad and hopeless. Symptoms can also differ by age group. Preschoolers may have less interest in play, be frequently irritable and have many physical complaints. Depressed school-age children may worry too much, fight with parents and friends, and have problems in school. Pre-teens may avoid family and friends, exhibit aggressive or risky behaviors such as drug or alcohol use. Among some adolescents parents will report evidence of eating disorders.

Depression is a form of mental illness that affects how one feels, thinks and acts. It’s more than “feeling blue” or having a bad day. Children and teens with clinical depression cannot simply “snap out of it”. As many as one in every 33 children, and approximately one in 8 adolescents suffer from depression. The good news is that treatment of depression is as effective for children as it is for adults. Treatment can include individual or family psychotherapy (talk therapy), psychiatric medication, peer support groups and social skills training. In the last 15 years, great strides have been made in treating depression in children.

Its important to recognize the signs of depression, note how long problems have been occurring and how frequently, as well as how severe. If symptoms are severe, last longer than two weeks, or are accompanied by suicidal thoughts, the next step is to have an evaluation by a mental health professional who specializes in treating children and adolescents. Your E4 Health program or your child’s doctor can assist you with this process. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent the consequences of untreated depression, which may include school failure, substance abuse or even suicide. Unfortunately, suicidal behavior and suicide itself has been increasing among teenagers.

Know The Signs* 

  • Persistent sadness and hopelessness
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities once enjoyed
  • Increased irritability or agitation
  • Missed school or poor school performance
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits (e.g. significant weight loss or insomnia)
  • Indecision, lack of concentration or forgetfulness
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • Frequent physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Lack of enthusiasm or motivation
  • Low energy and chronic fatigue
  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide

What are some of the risk factors for depression?* 

  • Children under stress, who have experienced loss, or who have attention, learning, or conduct disorders are at a higher risk for depression (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry).
  • Adolescent girls are more likely than adolescent boys to develop depression (National Institute of Mental Health).
  • Youth, particularly younger children, who develop depression are likely to have a family history of the disorder (National Institute of Mental Health).
  • Four out of every five runaway youth suffer from depression (U.S. Select Committee on Children, Youth & Families).


*From the National Mental Health Association, December 2000 


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