How to Recognize and Treat Childhood Depression
What is childhood depression?
Depression is an illness that affects the child’s thinking, feelings, behavior, and physical health. Like other illnesses, depression is NOT a weakness or under the child’s control to change. It is more than a sad day or a normal reaction to disappointment. Depression persists, lasting for weeks to months. It exists in about 5% of children and teens. Children who are ill or who have had a trauma or significant change in their routine are even more prone to becoming depressed.
How do we recognize childhood depression?
While the impact of depression can be great, it is sometimes hard to identify a child who is depressed. Youngsters do not always show signs of depression in the same way adults do. Many children do not know how to express their feelings or do not do so for fear of being different or thought of negatively. Depressed youngsters are often unable to tell us that they are depressed. The youngster may NOT always seem sad. Parents and teachers may not realize that their behavior is a symptom of depression. These signs or changes can suggest a child or teen might be depressed.
Persistent Changes in Mood
- Sadness – feeling sad, blue, “down in the dumps”
- Boredom or trouble feeling pleasure (even in things that once brought joy)
- Excess or inappropriate feelings of guilt
- A change in attitude toward school
Changes in Thinking
- Feelings of worthlessness (“I am bad.”)
- Feeling unloved and unlovable (“No one likes me.”)
- Feelings of hopelessness (“It will never get better or change.” I’ll never be able to…”)
- Feelings of helplessness (“I can’t do it.” “I’m not good enough.”)
- Thoughts of death, wishing to be dead, or suicidal intent (“I wish I’d never wake up.” “I just want to die.”)
Changes in Behavior
- An overall change in activity level
- Aggressive behavior
- Misbehavior at home or school
- Change in attitude toward school; frequent absences from school, or decline in school performance
- Withdrawal from friends; staying alone more often
- Decreased interest in pleasant events
- Poor concentration, decreased focus
- Abuse of alcohol or other drugs (in order to feel better and escape)
Changes in Bodily Functions
- Frequent complaints of physical illness like headaches and stomachaches
- Sleeping too much or disturbed sleep such as waking up in the nighttime and having trouble getting back to sleep
- Change in appetite, eating habits, weight gain or loss
- Loss of energy
Why is my child depressed?
Depression is often caused by a number of factors. Depression can be inherited. It may be due to things that happen to the child such as illness, stress, grief, or changes in the body’s chemistry. Children who have problems with attention, learning, or conduct are at greater risk.
What is the treatment for childhood depression?
Treatment depends on the type of depression, its causes, and its severity. Treatment may include having the child talk to a trained professional (counseling), taking anti-depressant medicine, or both. You and your child’s doctor will work together to find the best treatment for your child. Childhood depression is very responsive to treatment. It may take a few weeks for the symptoms to start to go away once treatment is started. Improvement is often slow and subtle. It takes time.
What should you do if you suspect your child is depressed?
Thinking that your child is depressed can be unsettling and even frightening. Early diagnosis and treatment can help. Contact a qualified professional such as a psychologist, pediatrician, or school counselor.
Spanish version of this Health Facts for You is #7205.
The information provided should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
Last Updated: 07/09/2013
Copyright © 07/09/2013 University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#6327
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