Depression in Children

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Quick GuidePhysical Symptoms of Depression in Pictures

Physical Symptoms of Depression in Pictures

What is childhood depression?

Clinically significant depression can be generally understood as being severe enough to interfere with one's ability to function. It is quite common at every age, affecting more than 16% of children in the United States at some time in their lives and thought to be increasing in children and adolescents, both in this country and elsewhere. Other statistics about depression include its tendency to occur at a rate of about 2% prior to the teenage years and at approximately 5%-8% when both adolescents and children younger than adolescence are considered. It is a leading cause of health impairment (morbidity) and death (mortality). About 3,000 adolescents and young adults die by suicide each year in the United States, making it the third leading cause of death in people 10-24 years of age.

What are the types of depression in children?

Children may suffer from the episodes of moderate to severe depression associated with major depressive disorder, or more chronic, mild to moderate low mood of dysthymia. Depression may also be part of other mood disorders like bipolar disorder, as a result of psychosis (for example, having symptoms of delusions or hallucinations), as part of a medical condition like hypothyroidism, or the result of exposure to certain medications such as cold medications or drug abuse, like cocaine withdrawal.

What are causes and risk factors for depression in children?

Depression in children does not have one specific cause. Rather, people with this illness tend to have a number of biological, psychological, and environmental contributors to its development. Biologically, depression is associated with a deficient level of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, a smaller size of some areas of the brain and increased activity in other parts of the brain. Girls are more likely to be given the diagnosis of depression than boys, but that is thought to be due to, among other things, biological differences based on gender, and differences in how girls are encouraged to interpret their experiences and respond to it as opposed to boys. There is thought to be at least a partially genetic component to the pattern of children, and teens with a depressed parent are as much as four times more likely to also develop the disorder. Children who have depression or anxiety are more prone to have other biological problems, like low birth weight, trouble sleeping, and to having a mother younger than 18 years old at the time of their birth.

Psychological contributors to depression include low self-esteem, negative body image, being excessively self-critical, and often feeling helpless when dealing with negative events. Children who suffer from conduct disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), clinical anxiety, or who have cognitive or learning problems, as well as trouble engaging in social activities also are have more risk of developing depression.

Depression may be a reaction to life stresses, like trauma, including verbal, physical, or sexual abuse; the death of a loved one; school problems; being bullied; or suffering from peer pressure. Youth who are struggling to adapt to the United States culture have found to be at higher risk for developing depression. Research differs as to whether children who are obese have an increased risk of developing depression.

Other contributors to this condition include poverty and financial difficulties in general, exposure to violence, social isolation, parental conflict, divorce, and other causes of disruptions to family life. Children who have limited physical activity, poor school performance, or lose a relationship are at higher risk for developing depression, as well.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/26/2017

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