Child and Adolescent Depression

Depressive disorders occur less frequently in children than adults, but rise dramatically in adolescence where depression is more frequent than adults. The behaviour of depressed children and teenagers may differ from the behaviour of depressed adults. Parents need to be aware of the symptoms that may signal depression in children and adolescents, as they may not be able or willing to express their feelings.

Symptoms in children may include:

  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness, crying
  • Decreased interest in activities; or inability to enjoy previously favourite activities
  • Hopelessness
  • Persistent boredom; low energy
  • Social isolation, poor communication
  • Low self esteem and guilt
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Frequent complaints of physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
  • Poor concentration
  • A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home
  • Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self destructive behaviour

A child who used to play often with friends may now spend most of the time alone and without interests. Things that were once fun now bring little joy to the depressed child. Children and adolescents who are depressed may say they want to be dead or may talk about suicide. Depressed children and adolescents are at increased risk for committing suicide. Depressed adolescents may abuse alcohol or other drugs as a way of trying to feel better.

Children and adolescents who cause trouble at home or at school may also be suffering from depression. Because the youngster may not always seem sad, parents and teachers may not realize that troublesome behaviour is a sign of depression. When asked directly, these children can sometimes state they are unhappy or sad.

Key points about depression in adolescence

  • Depression in this age group should be taken seriously. Youth suicide is the third most common cause of death in this age group.
  • It can be hard to distinguish adolescent turmoil from depressive illness, especially as the young person is also forging new roles within the family and struggling with independence, and academic and career decisions.

Signs of depression in an adolescent

An adolescent who is depressed may not show obvious signs of depression. Instead, he or she may start to behave uncharacteristically, by, for example:

  • Becoming socially withdrawn
  • Falling in their performance at school
  • Engaging in risk-taking behaviour (e.g. reckless driving, inappropriate sexual involvements)
  • Engaging in drug and alcohol abuse.

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