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Depression in Children and Teens - Topic Overview

Just what causes depression is not well understood. But it is linked to a problem with activity levels in certain parts of the brain as well as an imbalance of brain chemicals that affect mood. Things that may cause these problems include:

  • Stressful events, such as changing schools, going through a divorce, or losing a close family member or friend.
  • Some medicines, such as steroids or narcotics for pain relief.
  • Family history. In some children, depression seems to be inherited.

To diagnose depression, a doctor may do a physical exam and ask questions about your child's past health. You and your child may be asked to fill out a form about your child's symptoms. The doctor may ask your child questions to learn more about how he or she thinks, acts, and feels.

Some diseases can cause symptoms that look like depression. So the child may have tests to help rule out physical problems, such as a low thyroid level or anemia.

It is common for children with depression to have other problems too, such as anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or an eating disorder. The doctor may ask questions about these problems to help your child get the right diagnosis and treatment.

Usually one of the first steps in treating depression is education for the child and his or her family. Teaching both the child and the family about depression can be a big help. It makes them less likely to blame themselves for the problem. Sometimes it can help other family members see that they are also depressed.

Counseling may help the child feel better. The type of counseling will depend on the age of the child. For young children, play therapy may be best. Older children and teens may benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy. This type of counseling can help them change negative thoughts that make them feel bad.

Medicine may be an option if the child is very depressed. Combining antidepressant medicine with counseling often works best. A child with severe depression may need to be treated in the hospital.

There are some things you can do at home to help your child start to feel better.

  • Encourage your child to get regular exercise, spend time with supportive friends, eat healthy foods, and get enough sleep.
  • See that your child takes any medicine as prescribed and goes to all follow-up appointments.
  • Make time to talk and listen to your child. Ask how he or she is feeling. Express your love and support.
  • Remind your child that things will get better in time.
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