by Becky L. Spivey, M.Ed.
Is it possible that a child can suffer from depression?
Yes. Childhood depression differs from the normal “blues” and everyday emotions
that occur as a child develops. When a child seems sad, it doesn’t mean he or she has
significant depression. However, when sadness becomes disruptive enough to interfere
with a child’s normal social activities, interests, schoolwork, or family life, it may indicate
depression. Keep in mind, however, that while depression can be a serious illness, it is a very
How can I tell if my child is depressed?
The primary symptoms of depression usually revolve around sadness, a feeling of
hopelessness, and severe mood swings and changes. While symptoms of depression in children
may vary greatly and even be overlooked, emotional and psychological swings of growth
and puberty may mask what is really depression. Children may complain of feeling sick,
refuse to go to school, cling to a parent or caregiver, or worry excessively that a parent may
die. Older children and teens may sulk, get into trouble at school, be negative or grouchy, or
feel misunderstood. Earlier medical studies of depression in children focused on “masked”
depression, usually evidenced by acting out and angry behavior. While this does occur, many
children display sadness or a low mood similar to that of adults suffering from depression.
Signs of depression in children can be one of, or include
many of the symptoms listed below.
- Irritability or anger over and above the norm
- Continuous feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- Social withdrawal
- Increased sensitivity to rejection
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Sleeplessness or excessive sleep
- Vocal outbursts or crying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue and low energy
- Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches) that don’t respond to treatment
- Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Impaired thinking or concentration
- Thoughts of or talks about death or suicide
Not all children will present all of these symptoms. Most display different symptoms
at different times in different settings. Although some children function reasonably well in
structured environments, most children with significant depression suffer noticeable changes
in social activities, loss of interest in school and poor academic performance, or a change in
appearance. Children, especially those over the age of 12, may also begin experimenting
with drugs or alcohol.
Although relatively rare in youths under 12, young children have been known to
attempt suicide – and may do so impulsively when upset or angry. Girls are more likely
to attempt suicide, but boys are more likely to succeed. Children with a family history of
violence, alcoholism, or physical and/or sexual abuse are at a greater risk for suicide, as are
those with severely depressive symptoms.
What are the statistics of childhood depression?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health,
depressive disorders have affected approximately 11.2 percent
of 13- to 18-year-olds in the United States at some point during
their lives. Girls are more likely than boys to experience depressive
disorders. Additionally, 3.3 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds have
experienced a seriously debilitating depressive disorder.
What should I do if I suspect my child may be depressed?
If your child presents any of the symptoms listed above, please contact
your child’s physician.
You may also want to involve your elementary school’s guidance counselor. The
elementary years are a time when children begin developing their academic self-concept,
feelings of competence and confidence, decision-making, communication and life skills,
as well as character values. Your school counselor can offer help and support to your child
during a time when he or she is developing and acquiring attitudes toward self, peers, social
groups, school, and family.