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Depression in Children and Teens



  • Depression is a condition in which children and teens feel sad, hopeless, moody, irritable, and uninterested in daily life.
  • Both medicines and talk therapy are useful to treat depression in children and teens.
  • Ask children or teens if they are feeling suicidal or have done anything to hurt themselves. Get emergency care if your child or teen has thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others.


What is depression?

Depression is a condition in which children and teens feel sad, hopeless, moody, irritable, and uninterested in daily life. The depression may keep them from doing everyday activities.

Depression in children may be a one-time problem or may continue. Many children have trouble for weeks or months. Without treatment, depression may come back and get worse.

Children who have had depression are at greater risk for depression in their late teens and adult years.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of depression is not known.

  • The brain makes chemicals that affect thoughts, emotions, and actions. Without the right balance of these chemicals, there may be problems with the way your child thinks, feels, or acts. Children with this disorder may have too little or too much of some of these chemicals.
  • Depression tends to run in families. The reason is not clear. It may also be that parents have a negative outlook, and children learn this behavior from the parents. Or it may be passed from parents to a child through genes.
  • It may be triggered by stressful events like problems at school, being bullied, loss of a friend, parents' divorce, or the death of a pet or family member. Abuse, neglect, poverty, or being homeless also increases the risk for depression.
  • Children with severe learning disabilities, physical handicaps, or medical problems often develop depression. However, depression can start with no specific cause.

Depression is more serious when it begins before the age of 10 or 11 and is not the result of a specific event. In childhood, both boys and girls are equally at risk. During the teen years, girls are more likely than boys to develop depression.

What are the symptoms?

Depression is somewhat different in children and teens than in adults. Adults usually describe feelings of sadness and hopelessness along with fatigue. Depressed children are usually moodier and more irritable. They may be defiant. Their mood may shift from sadness to irritability or sudden anger. Some children and teens don't know that they are depressed. Instead of talking about how bad they feel, they may act out. You may see this as misbehavior or disobedience.

A child with depression may:

  • Get irritated often, lose his or her temper, have frequent outbursts of shouting or complaining, or act recklessly
  • Destroy things such as household items or toys
  • Talk about hating himself or herself or being stupid
  • Lose interest in the things he or she used to like and want to be left alone most of the time
  • Forget things, have trouble concentrating, and let the quality of schoolwork go down
  • Sleep a lot more, have trouble falling asleep at night, or wake up at night and not be able to get back to sleep
  • Lose his or her appetite, become a picky eater, or eat a lot more than usual
  • Be extremely sensitive to rejection or failure
  • Feel guilty for no reason or believe that he or she is just no good. Your child may hurt himself or herself such as by biting, hitting, or cutting
  • Start using alcohol and drugs
  • Talk about death and suicide such as saying, "I wish I were dead"

Teens deal with puberty, peers, and developing a sense of self. In all the confusion, it's easy to miss the signs of teenage depression. Teens with depression may also have symptoms such as often being angry, having problems in school, breaking the rules, and withdrawing from family members and friends.

How is it diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider or a mental health therapist will ask about the child's symptoms, medical and family history, and any medicines the child is taking. Your provider will check for a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms.

Many symptoms of depression are also symptoms of other disorders. Sometimes it is hard to tell depression from other problems such as bipolar disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A mental health therapist who specializes in working with children and teens is best qualified to diagnose depression.

How is it treated?

Both medicines and talk therapy are useful to treat depression in children and teens. If anyone is hurting your child physically or sexually, or if your child is being threatened, harassed, or bullied, the counselor can act to help keep your child safe.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) helps children learn about depression, along with teaching skills for managing their physical symptoms, negative thoughts, and problem behaviors. CBT can make your child aware of unhealthy ways of thinking. It can also help your child learn new thought and behavior patterns even after your child stops going to therapy. It can help your child learn to manage stress and improve self-esteem.

Family therapy is often helpful. Family therapy treats the family as a whole rather than focusing on just the child. Children often feel supported when parents and siblings attend therapy with them and work as a group.

Several types of medicines can help treat depression. If your child also has anxiety or ADHD, then medicine to treat those problems may be prescribed. Your child’s healthcare provider will work with you to select the best medicine for your child.

While rare, antidepressants may make a child or teen feel highly energized and active (manic), more depressed, or even suicidal. It is important to watch for new or worsening symptoms. This is more likely when the child first starts taking medicine, when the dose changes, or if the type of medicine changes. Talk with your child's healthcare provider about the risks and benefits of these medicines. In most cases there are more benefits than risks.

How can I help my child?

  • Support your child. Encourage your child to talk about whatever your child wants to talk about. Be a good listener. This helps your child realize that feelings and thoughts really do matter, that you truly care about your child, and that you never stopped caring. If your child shuts you out, don't walk away. Let your child know that you are there whenever your child needs you. Remind your child of this often. Even children raised in a loving and nurturing home need to hear it a lot because they may feel unworthy of love and attention for other reasons.
  • Ask your child if he or she is being bullied, hurt, or made to feel bad by anyone. Stay in touch with teachers, babysitters, and other people who care for your child to share information about symptoms your child may be having.
  • Be consistent. Understand that you are not responsible for your child's depression, even if something such as a divorce may have triggered it. Be firm and consistent with rules and consequences. Your child needs to know that the rules still apply. It does not help to teach children that they can avoid consequences if they’re depressed.
  • Help your child learn to manage stress. Teach children and teens to practice deep breathing or other relaxation techniques when feeling stressed. Help your child find ways to relax such as by taking up a hobby, listening to music, watching movies, or taking walks.
  • Take care of your child’s health. Make sure your child eats a variety of healthy food and gets enough sleep and physical activity every day. Teach children and teens to avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and drugs.
  • Check your child’s medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your child's healthcare provider and pharmacist about all the prescription and nonprescription medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and supplements your child takes. Make sure your child takes the medicines every day, even if feeling well. Stopping medicines when your child is feeling well may start the problems again.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your child’s symptoms continue or get worse.

Ask children or teens if they are feeling suicidal or have done anything to hurt themselves. Get emergency care if your child or teen has thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others.

For more information, contact:

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2022.1 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2021-12-07
Last reviewed: 2020-05-26
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2022 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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