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Depression in Children

What is depression in children?

Depression in children is a state of mind in which the child feels consistently unable to acknowledge and enjoy the better aspects of life.

All children have times when they feel sad or anxious. Usually, these are outnumbered by the times when the child feels happy, positive and cheerful. These 'down' periods are often called 'depression'. In fact, they are very different from true depres­sion, which is very rare in young children, but slightly more common in older children and adolescents.

What causes depression in children?

Many cases have no obvious reason. Causes which can be identified usually involve a situation where the child feels a lack of control.

Parental separation, or a death in the family may bring about sadness that, rather than fading with time, grows stronger until it dominates the child's life. A child that feels unable to match parental or teacher expectations can also become depressed.

Some experts believe true depression can be traced to a metabolic (relating to body chemistry), or a hereditary cause.


  • Constant tearfulness.
  • Unwillingness to participate in social situations.
  • Eating much more or much less than usual.
  • Repeated aching head or stomach.
  • Repeated complaining of feeling generally unwell.
  • Changing sleeping patterns.
  • Loss of concentration.
  • Disruptive behavior.

How is depression in children diagnosed and treated?

Parents are generally the first to notice signs of depression in their child, but these are occasionally brought to their attention by friends, relatives, or schoolteachers.

Sometimes, the child becomes withdrawn to the point of being unable to cope with school or family life, or becomes so disruptive that the school or family feels unable to cope with the child.

Children's behavior is seldom constant, and one or two symptoms occurring over a period of a few days or even weeks is rarely a cause for concern.

However, help is required if your child exhibits several of these symptoms over a longer period of time, or if the symptoms are very severe over a short period.

Treatment rarely involves hospitalization. In most cases, the child, or even the entire family, may talk to a family therapist to try to identify and eliminate the cause of the depression.

If possible, treatment solely involves talking through the problem, but in very severe cases medication may be given, usually for short-term use.

In extremely rare cases, the child may be admitted to hospital until the condition has stabilized.

Talking through the situation and suggesting changes in lifestyle and behaviour may be enough to help but, if not, the doctor will probably either refer your child to a child psychiatrist or the entire family to a family therapist. In severe cases, especially if the child is thought likely to harm him- or herself, the doctor may recommend hospital admission until the condition has improved.


Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a depressive condition that is triggered in susceptible people when the hours of daylight drop below a certain level. It is therefore more common in winter and can be distinguished from other forms of depression by the fact that it disappears once spring comes.

The condition can affect adults and children alike, but it is easily treated by controlled exposure to ultraviolet light.

When should I see my doctor?

Consult your doctor if the cause of your child's depression is not obvious, if talking through the problem is not enough, or if your child refuses to discuss the subject.

If a child is obviously unwilling or unable to confide in you, do not press the issue. Instead, ask your doctor for help.

What will the doctor do?

Your doctor will first ask questions to try to establish the cause of the depression, usually talking to you and your child individually.


The Institute of Family Therapy, 43 New Cavendish Street, London, W1M7RG. 071-935 1651

What can I do myself?

If you notice that your child is behaving in an uncharacteristic fashion and is showing some of the signs of depression, your first move should be to try to identify the cause.

It may be obvious: the death of a family member or friend, for instance, or tension within the family. The cause could lie in any area of the child's life, in or outside of the home, perhaps at school or among friends.

While you may not be able to remove the cause, discussing the situation with your child is, in some cases, enough to help resolve the problem.

Make sure to approach your child in the right atmosphere, when you are not likely to be disturbed, so that the child feels free to talk openly.

If you suspect that you may be unwittingly adding to your child's depression, try to modify your behavior. If symptoms persist, seek professional help.

Is depression in children dangerous?

Depression affects children's quality of life, causing them to miss out on its enjoyable aspects.

A depressed child is indicating that something is very wrong, and if the problem is not eliminated, depression can worsen. In extreme cases, a child may try to physically harm him- or herself, or even to attempt suicide.

However, if signs of depression are recognized, most children respond well to treatment. A sense of perspective quickly returns, and the child is soon able to enjoy life to the full once more.

Depression In Children's Literature