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Depression in Children and Teens - Topic Overview

Also, the symptoms may be different depending on how old the child is.

  • Both very young children and grade-school children may lack energy and become withdrawn. They may show little emotion, seem to feel hopeless, and have trouble sleeping. Often they will lose interest in friends and activities they liked before. They may complain of headaches or stomachaches. A child may be more anxious or clingy with caregivers.
  • Teens may sleep a lot or move or speak more slowly than usual. Some teens and children with severe depression may see or hear things that aren't there (hallucinate) or have false beliefs (delusions).

Depression can range from mild to severe. A child who feels a little "down" most of the time for a year or more may have a milder, ongoing form of depression called dysthymia (say "dis-THY-mee-uh"). In its most severe form, depression can cause a child to lose hope and want to die.

Whether depression is mild or severe, there are treatments that can help.

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.

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