Childhood Depression

Help for depressed children and the symptoms of childhood depression.

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  1. What is Childhood Depression?
  2. Diagnosing Childhood Depression
  3. What Causes Childhood Depression?
  4. Help for Childhood Depression
  5. More Information on Childhood Depression

What is Childhood Depression?

As a parent, it can be devastating to see a once happy, care-free child become a sullen shadow of his or her former self; a depressed child who has forgotten how to smile and who seems to have lost the contagious joy that comes so naturally to children.

Having slowly become socially withdrawn, depressed children seem to lack the interest in things that used to excite them, and they become increasingly more irritable, tearful and sad. If this is a familiar chain of events, your child may be suffering with depression.

Childhood is often associated with those carefree days before the stress of the responsibilities of life settled on our shoulders. Many people have the misconception that depression only happens to adults, "after all, what do children have to be depressed or worried about?"

Sadly, this is not always the case – children can suffer from depression too. Adults often forget just how stressful life as a child can be. Sometimes, there need not be a circumstantial event to set depression off, and it may simply be triggered by a chemical imbalance.

At other times, trauma or developmental difficulties may result in childhood depression. Either way, the effects of depression during this crucial developmental stage can be threatening to your child’s future and have devastating long-term consequences.

Who Suffers from Childhood Depression? Is there a cure?

While depression is more commonly associated with adults and adolescence, studies have shown that the disorder can affect infants as young as three months old. Approximately 3% of children suffer from depression and this statistic is increasing yearly.

It is important to seek a professional evaluation if you suspect your child may be depressed as effective treatments are available. If left untreated, a depressed child may becomesusceptible to developing disorders such as anxiety or mood disorders in adulthood. Normal development may also be affected - resulting in academic, social and behavioral problems.

Diagnosing Childhood Depression

If you suspect your child is suffering from depression, your first consultation should be with your child’s pediatrician or general practitioner. They will take a detailed history of your child’s symptoms and perform a medical check-up to ensure that no other medical condition is causing the symptoms.

If medical causes are ruled out, ask your doctor to refer you to a child psychologist (especially if your child is very young) or other reputable mental health care practitioner. Here, your child will be evaluated further with the use of specific depression inventories and in-depth interviews with parents, child and, if possible, other informants such as teachers.

Diagnosing childhood depression may be a lengthy process involving more than one session, especially if your child is too young to communicate symptoms accurately. For this reason, diagnosis will only be made after a thorough investigation into your child’s thoughts and feelings.

Rest assured that assessments in children are aimed at their age level and are often fun and game-orientated to ensure that it is not a negative experience.

Symptoms of Childhood Depression

Symptoms of childhood depression are similar to those of depression in adults and adolescents although the way these symptoms are expressed varies depending on the developmental stage of the child.

Children often lack the verbal accuracy or have difficulty identifying specific emotions such as sadness or depressed mood, and they will often act out or become more irritable towards others instead. Below are some of the commonly identified symptoms experienced by depressed children:

  • Feeling tearful, sad or helpless
  • Feeling nervous, tense or anxious
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most activities
  • Low self-esteem and feeling worthless
  • Irritable mood or bad tempered
  • New aggressive behavior or outbursts of anger
  • Change in physical activity, either marked by lethargy or hyperactivity
  • Fatigue and loss of energy
  • Change in appetite or weight
  • Sleep disorders, or frequent waking in the night
  • Nightmares
  • Repeated vague physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches without a medical cause
  • School refusal or increased number of school days missed
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Drop in academic performance
  • Social withdrawal or rejection
  • Frequent boredom and complaining
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Suicidal thoughts, or continuous thoughts of death and self-harm

What Causes Childhood Depression?

  • Genetics – Studies have shown that people who have relatives with a history of depression are two to three times more likely to develop depression themselves. Children with depressed parents are also at great risk because of the genetic link as well as the risk of learned behavior.

  • Brain chemistry – Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and certain hormones such as the stress hormone cortisol have been related to depression. Depression often occurs when the delicate balance of these brain chemicals is disturbed resulting in a general imbalance in other neurotransmitters. This chemical imbalance happens due to genetic and personality vulnerabilities, stressful life events or a combination of these factors.

  • Stressful life events – Stressful life events such as loss of parent, divorce or separation of parents, family conflict, abuse or large life change such as changing schools can all trigger depression.

  • Learned helplessness and personality traits – The way your child views the world can influence their vulnerability to developing depression. Some children have melancholic personalities, or are socially withdrawn or anxious by nature. These children are at greater risk for depression than outgoing, easily adaptable children who tend to view most situations in a positive light.

    Sometimes this behavior is learned from parents who may be overly critical, pessimistic or depressed themselves. Children can also have life experiences that teach them they are not in control or that they are prone to failure. Abuse or parents with unrealistically high expectations of their children can increase the chances that a child will develop a learned helplessness cognitive style.
Common Concerns about Childhood Depression

If you suspect that your child is depressed, do not hesitate to obtain a professional opinion. Treatments are often more effective and faster-acting if the depression is caught early and other problems such as social rejection and academic failure can then be avoided.

Because your child is going through important developmental changes and is still forming an identity and coping patterns for later in life, leaving depression untreated can have devastating long term effects. Statistically, depressed children are at significantly greater risk for developing depression, anxiety disorders, social impairments, and substance abuse problems in adolescence and adulthood.

For this reason, depressed children should be treated as rapidly as possible so that long-term effects can be minimized. Many parents feel that they are somehow responsible for their child’s depression and thus guilt stops them from seeking necessary help. Remember that nobody is at fault (even if a divorce may have triggered the depression), and that the best thing you can do for your child is to obtain the necessary help.

Help for Childhood Depression

Treating childhood depression is very similar to treating depression in adults, although in this case a careful diagnosis is extremely important. It is important to rule out all other possible physical causes of symptoms before deciding to treat for depression. Often times an assessment will include a psychological analysis of the depressed child, as well as interviews with parents, teachers, and anyone else who deals with the child in a relevant way.

Treatment Options for Childhood Depression

Drug Treatments

Very little is known about the safety and effectiveness of antidepressant medication in children. While they are often prescribed for adults, most practitioners caution against administering them to children as there are no long term studies indicating possible effects on child development. For this reason, most professionals would recommend another form of treatment unless your child is severely depressed or suicidal. However, it is worrying to note that increasing numbers of children are being treated with high schedule antidepressant drugs as a first resort, rather than first exploring the many options available.


Some form of psychotherapy is often recommended as the first line of treatment for depressed children. Explore the different options and ask for a professional opinion if you are unsure of what therapy will best suit your child. Play therapy, interpersonal therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and family therapy have all been shown to be successful in helping children manage depression as well as expose and deal with any possible underlying causes.


More Information on Childhood Depression

Other Disorders Related to Depression

Children with other disorders may also develop depression that is secondary to their main problem or diagnosis. This includes children with:

  • ADD and AD/HD
  • Autism or Aspergers Syndrome
  • PDD NOS (pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified)
  • Eating Disorders
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Those with family problems
  • Those who have other medical problems or disabilities
Tips for Helping Children Cope with Depression
  • Make sure that your child feels comfortable with the psychologist or counselor you have chosen for therapy. If it's not a good fit, find another.
  • What ever treatment plan you decide on, stick to it and allow it some time to start working – recovery does not happen overnight.
  • Involve your child’s teacher or guidance counselor so that he or she is getting some sort of support at school. It may be necessary to notify the school so that teachers are more sensitive and understanding about your child’s behavior.
  • Ensure regular and healthy meals to provide your child with a constant flow of energy and nutrition.
  • Encourage appropriate and regular sleep patterns. Too little sleep as well as too much sleep (persistent afternoon napping) may worsen symptoms.
  • Encourage some form of regular physical activity to boost natural endorphins and burn stress causing cortisol. Work this into daily routines and family outings such as daily walks to the park or weekend bicycle rides.
  • Talk to your child. Make communication open, easy and non-judgmental. Always listen to their concerns and worries and try to understand where they are coming from. Let your child know that you love him or her, no matter what.
  • Become more involved by setting time aside to do fun activities together.
  • Don’t feel guilty for your child’s depression. If you are struggling with emotions such as guilt, anger and frustration, consider talking these through with a counselor or psychologist.
  • Do try and change behavior or situations that may be fueling your child’s depression. If there is underlying conflict at home take necessary steps to solve it, if you have been feeling depressed or irritable yourself try dealing with these issues so that your child does not pick up bad vibes or negative behaviors from you.
  • Be a positive role model! This may mean trying to curb that pessimistic streak or biting your tongue when you feeling like screaming at the guy who just cut you off. Instill constructive problem solving skills in your child rather than ranting and blame placing.
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