Jul 27th 2023
Emotional fluctuations are normal and expected in children. However, depression in children is a serious issue that goes beyond simply feeling down. If your child experiences long-term depressive symptoms, the time has come to seek help.
Symptoms of childhood depression may include persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a sense of worthlessness.
Some children with depression also exhibit self-injurious behaviors (e.g., cutting), self-destructive behavior (e.g., abusing drugs), and might have suicidal ideation.
Just as with adult depression, childhood depression is often the result of a several different causes. Genetics and environmental influences, such as the child’s life experiences, can contribute to the development of depression in children.
These causes are enough to lead to depression on their own, too. For example, children that have one or more depressed parents are more likely to develop depression themselves. What’s more, children with a depressed caregiver tend to need acute health care services more often, are more likely to have a difficult temperament, and are more likely to have poorer interpersonal functioning.
As another example, the child’s life experiences can be the primary trigger for the development of childhood depression. Children that have experienced traumatizing events (e.g., survived a natural disaster, abuse, or an act of terror) are nearly four times as likely to develop depressive symptoms.
Other common risk factors and childhood depression symptoms include:
Children with comorbid psychological illnesses (e.g., anxiety disorders) or physical illnesses are more likely to experience depression. In addition, some medications can cause depressive symptoms, and children that experience sleep problems are more likely to have depression.
Diagnosing childhood depression requires more than simply observing signs of depression in children. Instead, if you suspect your child has depression, it’s essential to have them evaluated by a mental health professional.
Mental health professionals rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), as a guide for making a proper diagnosis. The DSM-5 criteria for diagnosing depression are summarized below:
Mental health professionals have various other instruments to evaluate your child for depression. For example, the Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale, a 20-item self-report questionnaire, is popular for assessing childhood depression, as is the Beck Depression Inventory-II, a 21-item self-report.
In some cases, a mental health professional might use the Patient Health Questionnaire, or PHQ9, which uses nine items to score each of the nine DSM-5 criteria for depression.
One of the most severe complications of childhood depression is the risk of developing suicidal ideation and self-harm.
Studies indicate that more than 27% of adolescents report thinking about self-harm, while 15% engage in at least one or more acts of self-harm. Of those that harm themselves, 82% report not seeking help for their mental health.
Self-harming behaviors also lead to other complications. These complications might include the following:
Though childhood depression can be severe, the good news is that it is highly treatable. Therapy, medication, and self-help strategies can be used independently or together to treat depressive symptoms. Common treatments are outlined in the sections below.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a well-research option for the treatment for depression in children. CBT focuses on identifying the connections between one’s thoughts and behaviors. CBT also focuses on relearning patterns of thinking as a means of producing healthier outcomes.
Family therapy is another common intervention for childhood depression. As the name indicates, family therapy focuses on the relationship between the child and their caregivers and seeks to foster change by improving interactions among family members.
Childhood depression also responds well to interpersonal therapy. This type of therapy seeks to help children decrease the interpersonal conflicts they’re experiencing by teaching them improved problem-solving and communication skills, which results in an improved ability to address relationship problems with others.
Two antidepressant medications - fluoxetine and escitalopram - are approved for adolescent depression by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Sertraline and citalopram are commonly prescribed for this age group as well.
In each case, these antidepressant medications are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. This class of antidepressants is generally better tolerated than other antidepressants, with fewer and less severe side effects.
Nevertheless, the potential for side effects is still present, so working with your child’s doctor to find the medication and dosage that provides the desired effect while minimizing undesirable side effects is essential.
Often, children need psychosocial support to cope with their depression. Something as simple as making yourself available to your child to talk can make a difference in their recovery. Other strategies you might try, include the following:
Depression affects approximately 4.4% of children in the United States. Rates of depression increase with age (e.g., approximately six percent of U.S. children aged 12-17 have depression, while less than two percent of U.S. children between the ages of 6-11 have depression).
In Europe, roughly 2.5% of children are believed to have a depressive episode at some point in any given year. However, in the U.S., rates of depression for adolescents are nearly double. 
On a global scale, it’s estimated that nearly 13% of children and adolescents experience a depressive episode at some point. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic depression increased, and this number rose to more than 25%. 
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