Depression in Children and Adolescents

Grouchiness, listlessness, moodiness, reluctance to go to school – all are common behaviors in young people at some stage of childhood or adolescence.  But they can sometimes signal something more serious than “growing pains” – illnesses like depression or bipolar disorder. This section of the toolkit discusses the specific ways depression impacts young people.  To learn more about the causes and symptoms of depression, click here.  To find out about the many options available to treat depression, click here.

How common is depression in young people?

It wasn’t until about 20 years ago that depressive disorders in children and adolescents were recognized at all. Now we know that as many as 5% of adolescents suffer from serious depression at some point in time, and about 20% of adolescents will experience meaningful symptoms of depression by the time they enter adulthood. We also know that the years between 15 and 24 represent the most common time for the onset of a depressive disorder.

Depression occurs more frequently with age, especially after the onset of puberty.  Although before puberty depression is seen with equal frequency in boys and girls, after puberty depression occurs twice as frequently in girls than in boys.  Depression may also be more likely to develop in children with other emotional disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), behavioral disorders, eating disorders or anxiety disorders, in children with developmental disorders or mental retardation, and in young people with certain medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, cancer or other chronic illnesses. 

Unfortunately, young people who suffer from depression are also more likely to experience depression during adulthood. This trend underscores the need to address the signs of depression when they first appear to help chart a course to wellness later in life.

What are the symptoms of depression in young people?

Depression’s symptoms differ at each developmental stage.

Symptoms in young children may include:

Symptoms in older pre-adolescents and adolescents may include:

Young people of all ages may also experience physical symptoms that cannot be attributed to other medical conditions, including headaches or stomachaches.  These too may be signs of depression.

Additional cautions

In the most severe forms of depression, young people may experience distortions of reality, such as hallucinations or delusions. Finally, suicide in young people is closely linked to depression. Most children who attempt or contemplate suicide suffer from depression, making prompt attention to the symptoms of depression critical.

The key is to know your child. Only then can you distinguish between normal behavior and signs of a more serious condition. If your usually quiet and well-mannered nine-year-old suddenly begins behaving disruptively—or your boisterous teenager suddenly becomes silent and withdrawn—it may be time for an honest discussion and a visit with your pediatrician.

How is depression diagnosed in young people?

The good news is that, just like in adults, depression in young people can be diagnosed and treated. When depression is addressed early, recovery is more likely and any later recurrences are apt to be less severe. 

Together with a healthcare provider, you can find out whether your child is experiencing depression or bipolar disorder, and help your child chart a course to feeling and functioning better.  This website provides tips and tools for starting that conversation with your child’s pediatrician or nurse practitioner, or with a community health professional.  See Talking with your healthcare provider.

Before engaging your pediatrician or other healthcare provider, you may find it helpful to know more about how depressive illnesses are diagnosed.  Experts commonly employ a series of established questions to identify depression. To walk your child through the same questions, click on Are you depressed?.  You can take the completed questionnaire to a professional to determine the best course of action.

How is depression treated in young people?

Safe and effective treatments are available for people of all ages who suffer from depression or related illnesses. For young people, the most effective treatment approach almost always includes a combination of psychotherapy (sometimes referred to as “talk therapy”) and medication. For treatment to be fully effective, consistency over time is critical. Therapy commonly continues for several months or longer.  To learn more about the many treatment options that may be available to help your child overcome depression, visit Know Your Treatment Options.