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Screening Children for Depression

What You Need to Know


Updated July 07, 2008

Depression is a common and under-recognized problem in children and adolescents and is thought to affect up to 5% of children. Untreated, depression can cause problems at home, school and with social interactions and can lead to drug abuse, behavior problems and even suicide.

Reviewing the risk factors and common symptoms of depression can help you recognize if your child is depressed, so you can intervene early and get him help.

Although boys and girls are equally at risk for depression in early childhood, adolescent girls are twice as likely to become depressed as boys. Adolescents and children are also more likely to become depressed if they have a family history of depression, especially having a parent who was depressed at a young age.

Other risk factors can include being under a lot of stress, cigarette smoking, suffering the loss of a parent or loved one or a breakup of a romantic relationship, having attentional, conduct or learning disorders or a chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, suffering abuse or neglect or some other trauma, including natural disasters.

As in adults, children and adolescents who are depressed may have the following symptoms:

  • Persistent sad or irritable mood
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Significant change in appetite or body weight
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation
  • Loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Symptoms that are more characteristic of children and adolescents who are depressed include:
  • Frequent vague, nonspecific physical complaints such as headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches or tiredness
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home
  • Outbursts of shouting, complaining, unexplained irritability, or crying
  • Being bored
  • Lack of interest in playing with friends
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Social isolation, poor communication
  • Fear of death
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
  • Reckless behavior
  • Difficulty with relationships
If you suspect that your child may be depressed, an evaluation with your pediatrician and/or a mental health professional, such as a child psychiatrist or child psychologist, will be helpful.

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