Children experience emotional ups and downs just like adults do. However, if emotions continually stay down, this may be a sign that the child is suffering from depression. Depression can begin to affect daily life and be an ongoing struggle for children.
Depression can affect people of any age, even children. About 4.4% of American children will suffer from depression at some point before their 18th birthday2. Children can find recovery from depression symptoms as long as it is properly diagnosed and treated.
Depression also called major depressive disorder (MDD), is a common and serious mental health condition that can be a struggle for people of all ages8. Depression can cause feelings of sadness or a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed. To be diagnosed with depression, symptoms of depression must be felt for at least two weeks persistently.
Depression can lead to various emotional and physical problems that can inhibit daily functioning. MDD can negatively affect feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Symptoms of depression may vary based on severity, length, and frequency.
Depression is typically defined as a sad or bad mood that lasts longer than normal and persists long after any triggering incident should have been resolved. Childhood depression is not hugely different from depression in adults, but children are less likely to appear sad and more likely to be irritable and act out.
In teenagers, however, signs can be different, including irritable mood, withdrawal from specific people, and increased sensitivity to criticism. Teens may begin to hang out with people who can lead them to drug or alcohol use. Older children and teenagers may realize they are depressed and may come to a parent, family member, or even a teacher about it.
Note that it is normal to be sad sometimes, and normal to be sad for a week or two after a loss or a major life change such as a move. To be diagnosed with depression the sad mood perisists and can begin to affect daily life. Typically, if the sad mood has lasted for more than two weeks, depression is likely to be diagnosed.
If a child’s depression increases in either the winter or the summer, then it may be seasonal affective disorder, which often runs in families. Parents with seasonal affective disorder can watch for signs of the condition in their children to help prevent this disorder.
Childhood depression can lead to suicidal ideation or suicidal behaviors. Although adult suicide is more common, children can also commit suicide. Knowing the signs that a child may be suicidal can help prevent tragic results.
Warning signs of suicide include3:
Girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but boys are more likely to succeed. Anything that looks like a suicide attempt, such as furtively going through pills or looking for a gun should be treated as an emergency.
If parents see any of those signs, they should suspect depression, particularly if an event is going on that increases risk.
Risk factors for depression in children include4:
Increasing parental support can help kids get through hard times without developing depression. Sometimes other relatives can step in when parents are unsupportive or, sadly, the cause of the problem.
The first thing to do if a child has depression is to talk about this mental illness honestly is talk to them about depression. Giving the child an understanding of their worth and that there is hope can help. Younger children might not be able to understand mental illness or why they are struggling.
The child can be assessed first by the family doctor, who can check for physical issues that might be causing depression. Next, a referral to a therapist who specializes in the age group of the child can help treat depression symptoms. The therapist can check for depression and also for other issues which are often comorbid with it, such as anxiety.
A mental health evaluation will include interviews with the child, with the parent or primary caregiver, and potentially with others such as teachers and classmates. Some pediatricians will do routine screenings for depression, especially for children with a family history.
The primary treatment for depression in children is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) designed for their age group5. CBT is an evidence-based talk therapy that can help children with depression recognize how their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all linked together. The idea behind CBT is by changing a thought, feeling, or behavior, change can occur in all three areas.
Family therapy is also an important component. With younger children, therapy might include a parent. With teenagers, who might be less willing to talk in front of their parents, both one-on-one and family therapy are typically recommended.
Experiential therapy can also be helpful for older children and teenagers; this is engaging in enjoyable activities to improve mood and build good habits. Therapists typically specialize in an age group. Teenagers may reject several therapists until finding the right match.
Medication is typically not recommended unless the child is acting out in dangerous ways or has a high risk of suicide. In some cases, antidepressants have been known to make suicidal thinking worse.
In extreme cases, residential care might be necessary for a short period of time to prevent suicide or self-harm. In residential care, children and teenagers receive therapy, medication as needed, and are taught the skills to help keep the depression from coming back.
Professional therapy is often vital to treat depression in children and adolescents. However, there are things parents, family members and even peers can do to help children with depression symptoms.
Physical activity can help relieve symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Enlisting same age friends can be helpful because kids are more likely to participate in activities with friends.
Therapists may have specific recommendations for exercise and physical activity. Finding an exercise that is enjoyable is desired because physical activity can turn into a lifelong habit.
Antidepressants are used less in teenagers and in children, but doctors may still prescribe them. Importance should be put on making sure the child is taking medication as prescribed. If the prescribed drugs appear to be making depression symptoms worse, calling a doctor is recommended rather than stopping the medication.
Note that refusing to go to bed on time (bedtime procrastination) can be a symptom of depression and/or stress. Bedtime procrastination can also be a sign that feelings of losing control are beginning to occur. For some teens the school schedule with very early starts can be a legitimate hardship and teens may need some extra support to get enough sleep.
Encourage teenagers to wait for the morning to have caffeine rather than in the evening in order to get enough sleep. Consider blocking social media access at a certain time, even if some teenagers may be hesitant to this restriction.
Provide good meals and discourage comfort eating with sugary, starchy food. Fill the fridge with vegetables, fruits, and nuts, and remove sugary drinks and refined sugar. Comfort eating can only provide a short term improvement in mood, but complete deprivation is not necessary. For some kids, assisting with cooking a good meal can be helpful to take their mind off things and boost mood.
Doomscrolling is a new term used to describe excessive amounts of screen time scrolling through negative news6. Kids can “doomscroll” as badly as adults if something stressful is going on in the world. If the child is using social media for online support groups or to communicate with friends, do not remove social media completely.
Involve the child in activities that involve other families, this is especially important if the child recently moved to a new area or has little social interactions. Attempt to do an activity that the child will enjoy so that they want to be involved.
Find family activities that the whole family can enjoy, including the child with depression. These activities can involve creativity, art, funny movies, or physical activity.
Involve the child, no matter how young, in choices for activities. One symptom of depression is feeling as if you have no control or agency, so it’s important to give the child agency, even if it’s only in small things such as choosing a movie.
Sometimes a new hobby or activity can really help a child recover from depression. Joining a new club at school or something that has been shown interest can help relieve depression symptoms.
Provide a safe and secure space where the child can openly talk about struggles that may be contributing to their depression. This safe space may be provided by a medical professional, family member, or peer. If parents are contributing to depression symptoms, the child may want to seek outside support in order to talk openly.
Make sure that teachers, friends (including peers), and anyone else who interacts with the child are aware of the struggles with depression. Keeping the child away from people who do not have an understanding of depression or think that the symptoms are a sign of laziness.
Talk about coping mechanisms that can cause feelings of happiness and are healthy ways to deal with symptoms of depression. Doodling or journaling can help some kids and are healthy coping skills. At times, giving the child space and privacy may be in their best interest.
Remove weapons from the house or at least find a place to secure them properly. Keeping track of craft tools and the like can reduce the risk of potentially causing serious injury.
Keeping alcohol, prescription, and non-prescription drugs away from the child can reduce the risk of a child self-medicating to alleviate depression symptoms. Self-medication using drugs and alcohol can lead to addiction and substance use disorders.
One child being depressed can easily cause the healthy children to feel ignored, which can then trigger depression in them. Siblings may also benefit from therapy and family therapy can be a good option.
Above all, support the child and make sure there is an understanding of depression triggers so the depression does not get worse. Support is important during the struggles of depression, not criticism. Talking to teachers to ensure they know the child is struggling can help get the child extra support.
In some cases children can grow out of depression. Childhood depression can sometimes go away after the hormonal changes of puberty or when the child has more control over their life as they get older.
Others may struggle with depression for their entire lives. Commonly, recovery can be found, but after having one episode the risk increases of having multiple episodes of depression throughout life.
Assuming that children will grow out of it or that childhood depression will go away on its own can put children at risk for future depressive episodes. A child who has recovered from depression should be monitored for a recurrence. As the child gets older they can be encouraged to self-monitor for symptoms and continue to use coping skills they have learned from their therapist.
Depression is a common mental health condition that affects people of all ages including children and teenagers. Treatment for children with depression is vital to finding recovery and helping to reduce depressive episodes in the future. Common forms of treatment for children with depression are cognitive behavioral therapy, family, therapy, experiential therapy, and occasionally medication.
If you have a child who is struggling with depression, please reach out to Solace Treatment today. Our admissions team can help you find treatment and answer any questions you may have.
Solace Treatment Center does not treat people under the age of 18, but we would be happy to get you in touch with a facility that does.