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Research into pre-adolescent depression lags behind the adult onset form of the disorder, but scientists estimate that of the 2.5% of children that experience depression, 2 out of 3 go undiagnosed and untreated, even though existing treatments for childhood depression work very well.

Symptoms of Childhood Depression

Signs of depression in children include:

  • Pervasive and frequently occurring sadness, crying spells
  • Frequently occurring boredom and a lack of normal energy
  • Hopelessness
  • Feelings of guilt
  • An inability to concentrate
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection
  • Irritability or hostility
  • A lack of self esteem
  • Worry about death
  • A sudden loss of desire to play with friends
  • Little interest in activities that were once found enjoyable
  • Aches and pains, such as headaches and stomach aches
  • Running away from home
  • Reckless acts

To meet the criteria for depression, symptoms must endure for longer than 2 weeks and must cause significant disruption to school, social or family life.

Sometimes, children aren’t able to explain how they feel to parents and instead "act out" acting irritable or aggressive because of their feelings of sadness or guilt. In other cases, depressed children act similarly to depressed adults.

Which Children Are Most at Risk?

Prior to the age of 10, boys seem more vulnerable to depression, however by adolescence girls are at far greater risk.

The children of parents who experienced an early onset depression are at greater risk of a pre adolescent depression; genetics very likely play a role in the transference of the disorder.

Other factors that increase the risks of experiencing a very early onset depression include:

  • Emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Stress
  • The loss of a parent
  • Learning, behavioral or attentional disorders
  • Chronic physical illness

Childhood depression very likely occurs through an interaction effect of social, genetic and familial factors.

Children with very early onset depression are at an increased risk of bipolar disorder and about half of all children with early onset depression will experience a remission within 5 years. Early onset depression is correlated with an increased risk for recurring depression throughout life.


As for adults, the two treatments that seem to work best for depressed children are medication and psychotherapy (particularly cognitive behavioral therapy).

Doctors will often recommend only psychotherapy for children with mild to moderate depression, hoping to see symptoms remission before starting a course of anti depressant medications. Children with severe depression may get prescribed medication from treatment outset.

Although many doctors have some reservations about the use of anti depressant medications for children, SSRIs have been shown in limited studies to be safe for brief treatment of depression in young subjects. The use of medication in children with depression remains a somewhat controversial form of treatment, and although initial studies indicate the safety and efficacy of their use, larger more controlled studies are still lacking to confirm these initial outcome results.

The SSRI, Prozac, is FDA approved for the treatment of children ages 8 and above.

Treatment works very well to improve or arrest symptoms of depression and so it is vital that parents concerned about a possible diagnosis of depression visit a children's mental health specialist as soon as possible. It's tough enough growing up; with symptoms of depression hampering emotional and even physical growth - it's too tough.

Although anti depressant medications may increase the risks of suicidal thoughts, research suggests that the benefits of SSRIs for children with serious depressive disorders outweighs the risks.

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Page last updated Aug 05, 2010

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