FFFDepression in Children and Teens

No. 4; Updated October 2018

Many children have times when they are sad or down. Occasional sadness is a normal part of growing up. However, if children are sad, irritable, or no longer enjoy things, and this occurs day after day, it may be a sign that they are suffering from major depressive disorder, commonly known as depression. Some people think that only adults become depressed. In fact, children and adolescents can experience depression, and studies show that it is on the rise. More than one in seven teens experience depression each year.

Common symptoms of depression in children and adolescents include:

  • Feeling or appearing depressed, sad, tearful, or irritable
  • Not enjoying things as much as they used to
  • Spending less time with friends or in after school activities
  • Changes in appetite and/or weight
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Feeling tired or having less energy
  • Feeling like everything is their fault or they are not good at anything
  • Having more trouble concentrating
  • Caring less about school or not doing as well in school
  • Having thoughts of suicide or wanting to die

Children also may have more physical complaints, such as frequent headaches or stomach aches. Depressed adolescents may use alcohol or other drugs as a way of trying to feel better.

We don't always know the cause of depression. Sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. Other times, it happens when children are under stress or after losing someone close to them. Bullying and spending a lot of time using social media may be associated with depression. Depression can run in families. Having another condition such as attentional problems, learning issues, conduct or anxiety disorders also puts children at higher risk for depression.

Sometimes parents are not sure if their child is depressed. If you suspect your child has depression, try asking them how they are feeling and if there is anything bothering them. When asked directly, some children will say that are unhappy or sad, while others will say they want to hurt themselves, be dead, or even that they want to kill themselves. These statements should be taken very seriously because depressed children and adolescents are at increased risk of self harm. Another way of identifying depression is through "screening" by your child's pediatrician, who may ask your child questions about their mood or ask them to fill out a brief survey.

If you think your child or teenager might be depressed, it is important to seek help. A pediatrician, school counselor, or qualified mental health professional can help by referring your child to someone who can conduct a comprehensive assessment, diagnose depression, and identify the right treatments.

The good news is that there are several effective treatments for depression. Treatment may include psychotherapy (or "talk therapy"), meetings with your family, and, with your permission, discussions with your child's school. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) are forms of psychotherapy shown to be effective in treating depression. Treatment may also include the use of antidepressant medication. The potential risks and benefits of any medicine should be carefully discussed. Learn more about medications used to treat depression in children and adolescents.

AACAP wishes to thank the Klingenstein Third Generation Foundation for supporting production of the depression in Children and Teens and Suicide in Children and Teens Facts for Families.