Childhood Depression: Overview

Reviewed Apr 6, 2017

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Summary

  • Learn what to look for in a child that may be depressed.
  • Find out how common childhood depression is.
  • Learn what causes childhood depression.

It can be hard to know that children can have depression. Most of us would think, “What does a child have to be unhappy about?” But, things other than life events can cause it. Many people are simply born with a better chance of being depressed, no matter what happens in their lives. 

The way a child shows his depression is often not like adults. They do not yet have the words, maturity, or experience needed to express themselves in that way. “Depression” is really a pretty big and difficult word for a child to understand.

It is important for adults to look for actions or behaviors that we may not consider depression. For example, a child may very often be cranky or crabby, no matter the fun things going on around them. Of course, they will also show times of sadness or depressed mood. They also will show a loss of interest in many activities that most other children enjoy.

During the course of one’s life, every child, or adult for that matter, will have feelings of depression. It is normal and common. But, in order to know whether the child is just having a bad day or is in need of getting help, you can look for some signs.
 
For example, the problems you see must happen often, such as for most of every day, for at least two weeks. Both you and the child will see what is going on as a problem in important activities of her life. This might include bad grades at school, not getting along with other people, or avoiding taking care of chores and other duties at home.

Other problems you may see are really all about differences in what would be likely to happen. Here are some things to look for:

  • Differences in eating; this includes decreased appetite or increased appetite, often for sweets, carbs, or "comfort foods”
  • The child does not make expected increases in weight or there is a weight gain that is not because of normal growth and development (such as five percent or higher than what you or your child’s doctor would expect)
  • Increased or decreased sleeping
  • A change in activity level, either higher or lower
  • An obvious drop in energy level
  • Complaining every day of feeling really tired (for example, the child might need more time to finish her chores than before, but not because of poor attention or being distracted by other things going on in the home)
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Problems in thinking, focusing on tasks, or making choices
  • Thoughts of death or suicide that don’t stop, making plans to kill himself, or making an attempt

Is it common?
 
Many people are surprised to learn that depression in preschool-aged children is about two percent to three percent. Among teens, the rate is up to eight percent. But 3.3 percent of those teens were considered as severely depressed. There is not much difference between boys and girls in childhood, but once they become teens, girls are two to three times more likely to have depression. This difference can last into adulthood if help is not sought.
 
While the basic signs of childhood depression do not differ between children and teens, teens complain more about how they feel, they like to be by themselves, and they are more likely to be crabby or grouchy. Teens are also more likely to be sluggish and tired, to sleep more and may have false ideas about what is going on around them.
 
Causes
 
It is frustrating for parents and guardians as there are no lab tests for depression. There is a link in families. A child of a parent who has depression is up to three times more likely to have it too.
 
But other things can increase the chance of depression, such as stress. Children who lose a parent or another loved one, who have a problem with paying attention or learning, or who misbehave have a higher chance of depression. Research shows that children who have other psychiatric conditions are more likely to develop symptoms that may turn into depression.
 
In some cases, depression may be the psychological result of some other health problem, such as an illness that lowers a person’s ability to join in the activities she could before the sickness. It could also be the result of substance use. In any case where depression is suspected, you should seek help from a professional health care provider.

By Chris E. Stout, PsyD, Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, College of Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago
Source: Beardslee WR, Gladstone TR. Prevention of childhood depression: recent findings and future prospects. Biol Psychiatry. 2001;49:1101-1110; Bonin L. Depression in adolescents: epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis, www.uptodate.com/contents/depression-in-adolescents-epidemiology-clinical-manifestations-and-diagnosis; Carlson GA. The challenge of diagnosing depression in childhood and adolescence. J Affect Disord. December 2000;61(suppl 1):3-8; Castiglia PT. Depression in children. J Pediatr Health Care. March-April 2000;14:73-75; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). American Psychiatric Association, 1999; National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1MDD_CHILD.shtml; Synopsis of Psychiatry by Benjamin J. Sadock, Virginia A. Sadock and Pedro Ruiz, MD, LWW, 11th edition, 2014.
Reviewed by Steven T. Batton, DO, Medical Director, ValueOptions Federal Division

Summary

  • Learn what to look for in a child that may be depressed.
  • Find out how common childhood depression is.
  • Learn what causes childhood depression.

It can be hard to know that children can have depression. Most of us would think, “What does a child have to be unhappy about?” But, things other than life events can cause it. Many people are simply born with a better chance of being depressed, no matter what happens in their lives. 

The way a child shows his depression is often not like adults. They do not yet have the words, maturity, or experience needed to express themselves in that way. “Depression” is really a pretty big and difficult word for a child to understand.

It is important for adults to look for actions or behaviors that we may not consider depression. For example, a child may very often be cranky or crabby, no matter the fun things going on around them. Of course, they will also show times of sadness or depressed mood. They also will show a loss of interest in many activities that most other children enjoy.

During the course of one’s life, every child, or adult for that matter, will have feelings of depression. It is normal and common. But, in order to know whether the child is just having a bad day or is in need of getting help, you can look for some signs.
 
For example, the problems you see must happen often, such as for most of every day, for at least two weeks. Both you and the child will see what is going on as a problem in important activities of her life. This might include bad grades at school, not getting along with other people, or avoiding taking care of chores and other duties at home.

Other problems you may see are really all about differences in what would be likely to happen. Here are some things to look for:

  • Differences in eating; this includes decreased appetite or increased appetite, often for sweets, carbs, or "comfort foods”
  • The child does not make expected increases in weight or there is a weight gain that is not because of normal growth and development (such as five percent or higher than what you or your child’s doctor would expect)
  • Increased or decreased sleeping
  • A change in activity level, either higher or lower
  • An obvious drop in energy level
  • Complaining every day of feeling really tired (for example, the child might need more time to finish her chores than before, but not because of poor attention or being distracted by other things going on in the home)
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Problems in thinking, focusing on tasks, or making choices
  • Thoughts of death or suicide that don’t stop, making plans to kill himself, or making an attempt

Is it common?
 
Many people are surprised to learn that depression in preschool-aged children is about two percent to three percent. Among teens, the rate is up to eight percent. But 3.3 percent of those teens were considered as severely depressed. There is not much difference between boys and girls in childhood, but once they become teens, girls are two to three times more likely to have depression. This difference can last into adulthood if help is not sought.
 
While the basic signs of childhood depression do not differ between children and teens, teens complain more about how they feel, they like to be by themselves, and they are more likely to be crabby or grouchy. Teens are also more likely to be sluggish and tired, to sleep more and may have false ideas about what is going on around them.
 
Causes
 
It is frustrating for parents and guardians as there are no lab tests for depression. There is a link in families. A child of a parent who has depression is up to three times more likely to have it too.
 
But other things can increase the chance of depression, such as stress. Children who lose a parent or another loved one, who have a problem with paying attention or learning, or who misbehave have a higher chance of depression. Research shows that children who have other psychiatric conditions are more likely to develop symptoms that may turn into depression.
 
In some cases, depression may be the psychological result of some other health problem, such as an illness that lowers a person’s ability to join in the activities she could before the sickness. It could also be the result of substance use. In any case where depression is suspected, you should seek help from a professional health care provider.

By Chris E. Stout, PsyD, Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, College of Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago
Source: Beardslee WR, Gladstone TR. Prevention of childhood depression: recent findings and future prospects. Biol Psychiatry. 2001;49:1101-1110; Bonin L. Depression in adolescents: epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis, www.uptodate.com/contents/depression-in-adolescents-epidemiology-clinical-manifestations-and-diagnosis; Carlson GA. The challenge of diagnosing depression in childhood and adolescence. J Affect Disord. December 2000;61(suppl 1):3-8; Castiglia PT. Depression in children. J Pediatr Health Care. March-April 2000;14:73-75; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). American Psychiatric Association, 1999; National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1MDD_CHILD.shtml; Synopsis of Psychiatry by Benjamin J. Sadock, Virginia A. Sadock and Pedro Ruiz, MD, LWW, 11th edition, 2014.
Reviewed by Steven T. Batton, DO, Medical Director, ValueOptions Federal Division

Summary

  • Learn what to look for in a child that may be depressed.
  • Find out how common childhood depression is.
  • Learn what causes childhood depression.

It can be hard to know that children can have depression. Most of us would think, “What does a child have to be unhappy about?” But, things other than life events can cause it. Many people are simply born with a better chance of being depressed, no matter what happens in their lives. 

The way a child shows his depression is often not like adults. They do not yet have the words, maturity, or experience needed to express themselves in that way. “Depression” is really a pretty big and difficult word for a child to understand.

It is important for adults to look for actions or behaviors that we may not consider depression. For example, a child may very often be cranky or crabby, no matter the fun things going on around them. Of course, they will also show times of sadness or depressed mood. They also will show a loss of interest in many activities that most other children enjoy.

During the course of one’s life, every child, or adult for that matter, will have feelings of depression. It is normal and common. But, in order to know whether the child is just having a bad day or is in need of getting help, you can look for some signs.
 
For example, the problems you see must happen often, such as for most of every day, for at least two weeks. Both you and the child will see what is going on as a problem in important activities of her life. This might include bad grades at school, not getting along with other people, or avoiding taking care of chores and other duties at home.

Other problems you may see are really all about differences in what would be likely to happen. Here are some things to look for:

  • Differences in eating; this includes decreased appetite or increased appetite, often for sweets, carbs, or "comfort foods”
  • The child does not make expected increases in weight or there is a weight gain that is not because of normal growth and development (such as five percent or higher than what you or your child’s doctor would expect)
  • Increased or decreased sleeping
  • A change in activity level, either higher or lower
  • An obvious drop in energy level
  • Complaining every day of feeling really tired (for example, the child might need more time to finish her chores than before, but not because of poor attention or being distracted by other things going on in the home)
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Problems in thinking, focusing on tasks, or making choices
  • Thoughts of death or suicide that don’t stop, making plans to kill himself, or making an attempt

Is it common?
 
Many people are surprised to learn that depression in preschool-aged children is about two percent to three percent. Among teens, the rate is up to eight percent. But 3.3 percent of those teens were considered as severely depressed. There is not much difference between boys and girls in childhood, but once they become teens, girls are two to three times more likely to have depression. This difference can last into adulthood if help is not sought.
 
While the basic signs of childhood depression do not differ between children and teens, teens complain more about how they feel, they like to be by themselves, and they are more likely to be crabby or grouchy. Teens are also more likely to be sluggish and tired, to sleep more and may have false ideas about what is going on around them.
 
Causes
 
It is frustrating for parents and guardians as there are no lab tests for depression. There is a link in families. A child of a parent who has depression is up to three times more likely to have it too.
 
But other things can increase the chance of depression, such as stress. Children who lose a parent or another loved one, who have a problem with paying attention or learning, or who misbehave have a higher chance of depression. Research shows that children who have other psychiatric conditions are more likely to develop symptoms that may turn into depression.
 
In some cases, depression may be the psychological result of some other health problem, such as an illness that lowers a person’s ability to join in the activities she could before the sickness. It could also be the result of substance use. In any case where depression is suspected, you should seek help from a professional health care provider.

By Chris E. Stout, PsyD, Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, College of Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago
Source: Beardslee WR, Gladstone TR. Prevention of childhood depression: recent findings and future prospects. Biol Psychiatry. 2001;49:1101-1110; Bonin L. Depression in adolescents: epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis, www.uptodate.com/contents/depression-in-adolescents-epidemiology-clinical-manifestations-and-diagnosis; Carlson GA. The challenge of diagnosing depression in childhood and adolescence. J Affect Disord. December 2000;61(suppl 1):3-8; Castiglia PT. Depression in children. J Pediatr Health Care. March-April 2000;14:73-75; Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR). American Psychiatric Association, 1999; National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1MDD_CHILD.shtml; Synopsis of Psychiatry by Benjamin J. Sadock, Virginia A. Sadock and Pedro Ruiz, MD, LWW, 11th edition, 2014.
Reviewed by Steven T. Batton, DO, Medical Director, ValueOptions Federal Division

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