Recognizing Depression in Children

Diagnosable depression (e.g. Major Depressive Disorder) is the most common mental illness across the world. In children, depression looks different than it does in adults. Children often present with lower energy and more irritability.

Depression is different than a temporary low mood, regular ups and downs, or a response to loss (grief). Depression in children lasts for a long period of time (more than a couple of months), is typically persistent and can impact a child’s functioning in school, at home, and in their social life.

Symptoms of depression in children include:

  1. reduced interests/pleasure
  2. irritability or attitude issues
  3. sleeping more or less
  4. changes in appetite
  5. sadness, hopelessness
  6. reduced energy level
  7. isolating from family and friends

You may notice that your child is no longer interested in the hobbies, school subjects, or sports that usually excite them. Your child may have become noticeably more irritable, reacting negatively or disproportionately, even to the little things.

Be on the lookout for changes in your child’s sleep routines. Are they having more difficulty waking up in the morning or sleeping all weekend? Are they staying up late at night despite efforts to get to sleep?

Many children with depression experience a significant change in their appetite that can result in weight gain or loss. Just like adults, children with depression can present with sadness and hopelessness that is persistent despite reminders of the positive things going for them.

Children may show reduced energy levels and require more resting. They may begin to request to stay alone in their rooms and appear to avoid in-person or online contact with friends and peers.

Your child may not exhibit all of the symptoms listed here and still may be suffering from depression. If you have noticed any of the above changes in your child’s behavior that has remained persistent over a period of several weeks, you may wish to seek further advice or treatment.

What to do?

If you notice that your child is showing some of these signs of depression, consider scheduling a visit with your child’s pediatrician to have your concerns about these changes in your child’s behavior addressed. The pediatrician should assess the symptoms and point you in the direction of a professional evaluation to determine what kinds of supports and/or treatment would be of the most help.

The most effective intervention for childhood depression is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). For younger children, this will often involve the caregiver. Some may also consider a medication evaluation for a mood medication (e.g. an SSRI) to augment the benefits of CBT. For adolescents, they may be more independent and active in their treatment and recovery. Depression is treatable once it is recognized and accurately diagnosed.

Source: American Psychiatric Association, & American Psychiatric Association. (2013). DSM 5. American Psychiatric Association, 70.

By: Jordan Levine, PsyD, Supervised by Misti Nicholson, PsyD

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