Although depression can occur in young children, it is much more common in adolescents and, after puberty, occurs much more frequently in girls. For a diagnosis of depression in children, as in adults, at least five symptoms must be present for a period of at least two weeks.
The signs of depression more frequently seen in children are:
- Irritability or sadness
- Boredom, lack of interest in friends and previously enjoyed activities
- Changes in appetite resulting in failure to gain weight or, especially in teens, weight gain
- Irregular sleep patterns – either having difficulty sleeping or refusing to wake up for school
- Persistent lack of energy or feeling tired
- Self-critical – feeling that “no one likes me”
- Not performing well at school, lack of motivation, inability to concentrate
- Preoccupation with death, writing or talking about suicide
Young people may also engage in high-risk sexual activities and other behaviors including shoplifting, physical fights and abuse of alcohol or drugs.
Untreated, depression can lead to devastating consequences in young people, including ongoing problems in school, at home and with friends, losing critical developmental years and increasing the risk for substance abuse.
If you are concerned your child may be depressed, it is important to talk to him or her about your observations and how he or she is feeling and to listen for key warning signs. You should try to create an open, honest communication where mental health issues, like depression, are treated like any other health risks affecting adolescents.
Psychotherapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy, and medications have been effective in treating depressed children. Together you, your child and your clinician, can choose a treatment that seems best. If at the end of an adequate trial, usually eight to 12 weeks, you have seen no improvement, the treatment should be changed.