What is Childhood Depression?

Clinical depression is a mental illness that may occur in response to a traumatic event in your child’s life, or for no apparent reason. About 5 percent of all children worldwide suffer from depression at any given time.[1] Although a child can suffer from depression at any age, it is more prevalent in adolescence, when developmental and emotional changes surge. Childhood depression dramatically changes the sufferer’s personality, and may affect his or her academic performance and physical well being.[2]

Definition of Childhood Depression

Childhood depression is the early onset of clinical depression, which causes sufferers to feel discouraged, hopeless, sad, and unsettled. While these feelings are common on occasion, a depressed child will suffer from long-term emotional distress that may become increasingly severe, sometimes to the point of physical illness or attempted suicide.[3]

Signs of Childhood Depression

Depression often develops following a traumatic life event, such as a divorce or death of a loved one or pet. Sometimes there may not be an identifiable trigger event. A depressed child may engage in self-destructive behavior such as drug/alcohol use, or running away from home. Academic performance may dramatically decline. Children of any age may withdrawal from activities they once enjoyed, and may become socially distant to the point where they lose friendships.

Symptoms of Childhood Depression

In addition to social and behavior changes, depressed children often have an outward appearance of sadness, with frequent moping and crying. Anxiety and restlessness may increase. Physical symptoms include loss of appetite, headache, stomach ache, fatigue, and lack of energy.

Causes of Childhood Depression

There may be no known cause of childhood depression. When causes are identified, they may be linked to pre-existing conditions such as bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, learning disorders, or conduct disorders.[2] Depression tends to be genetic, and children have a higher risk of childhood depression if a parent or sibling has been diagnosed with depression.

Effects of Childhood Depression

If left untreated, childhood depression will become increasingly severe and difficult to treat. The rapid development associated with childhood can make depression more dramatic than when the illness emerges in adulthood. A depressed child may start out with subtle changes, such as becoming more quiet or spending more time in his/her bedroom.[1] These behaviors often escalate rapidly, and the child’s behavior changes will typically be noticed by parents, teachers, and close friends. If physical symptoms occur along with mental symptoms, it can be difficult to tell whether the mental changes are a reaction to a physical problem, or the physical symptoms are a reaction to a mental problem. Parents should seek care from the child’s pediatrician and/or mental health professional (if the child has a pre-existing medical condition for which he/she is already being treated.)

Treatment for Childhood Depression

Early diagnosis and treatment helps relieve depression faster, and makes long-term physical or mental damage less likely. Parents should seek medical advice any time they notice behavioral changes that persist for several days, or seem to re-occur frequently. Individual cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy have been proven effective in treating depression.[1] Family therapy is often beneficial for children, and may be provided along with individual therapy. This allows the mental health professional to assess the child’s relationships with parents and siblings. It also gives parents the opportunity to understand the child’s mental illness, and learn positive ways to help the child recover at home.


  1. The Depressed Child. (May 2008). American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from http://aacap.org/page.ww?name=The+Depressed+Child§ion=Facts+for+Families
  2. Early-Onset Depression. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from http://www.nami.org/Content/ContentGroups/Helpline1/Facts_About_Childhood_Depression.htm
  3. Childhood Depression. Healthy Children. Retrieved July 22, 2012, from http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/pages/Childhood-Depression.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token

By C. J. Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor

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