Depression in Childhood or Adolescence
Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
What is depression in childhood or adolescence?
Childhood and adolescent depression is an emotional disorder which affects people under the age of 18. Like depression in adults, it is characterized by persistent feelings of low self-esteem, sadness, and hopelessness and can last for weeks or months. It is more common in the teenage years. Signs of depression in children and adolescents include irritability, loss of interest and social isolation. These signs may be accompanied by physical symptoms such as sleeping difficulties, digestive problems, changes in appetite, and fatigue. Successful treatment typically involves psychological counseling and medication. With treatment and support, many people recover from depression. Untreated depression in children and teenagers may have lifelong consequences.
Depression can affect children and young people of any age, including infants. This condition becomes more common with age and by adolescence, and many as 1 in 5 young people may have symptoms of depression. In childhood, boys are more commonly affected than girls, but during puberty, more girls are often affected than boys. The causes of depression are not clear, but it is probable that several factors combine to cause depression. These include stressful life events, a lack of social support, changes in brain chemicals and unstable family or social circumstances. Children who have a close family member with depression are more likely to also develop depression. Some children with ongoing medical issues are more likely develop depression. Infants born to women who experienced depression during pregnancy are more likely to show signs of depression.
Symptoms of depression vary with age. Small children may express depression by uncontrollable crying or reluctance to eat or play. They may develop slower than other children and seem less interactive than other children. School-aged children appear impulsive, easily frustrated and sometimes have social and learning difficulties. They may develop self-harming behavior. Symptoms in teenagers can sometimes be difficult to recognize, but include a persistently low mood, and a lack of energy and motivation. They may experience or describe feelings of inner emptiness, insecurity, and trouble concentrating. Teenagers also experience physical symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping, stomach pain, a loss of appetite, weight loss or gain and headaches. Their school performance may gradually get worse. Less commonly, some teenagers may develop thoughts of death or suicide.
The diagnosis is usually made by an experienced child psychologist or psychiatrist based on the symptoms described by the young person. The doctor should rule out other possible causes for the symptoms. Some blood tests can be helpful to rule out these other causes. Keeping a diary which documents the patient’s mood, sleep, energy and thoughts might be helpful in making the diagnosis.
The treatment of depression in children and teenagers is guided by the severity of the symptoms and the circumstances of the child and their family. Treatment commonly involves psychotherapy (counseling) and sometimes medication. Counseling often involves the family, and is typically focussed on helping a young person learn to recognize and control their thoughts and feelings, and on teaching them healthy coping skills. Treatment is slow and steady, and it may take weeks to months until improvement is seen.
A reliable source of emotional support may help to prevent young people developing depression. Exercise, enough sleep and a healthy diet are also very important. Early recognition, diagnosis and treatment are all factors which can reduce the chance of depression in chilhood becoming a lifelong condition.
Other names for depression in childhood or adolescence
- Depression in adolescence
- Depression in children
- Depression in teenagers
- Juvenile depression