Do symptoms of depression vary by age?

Dr. Deborah Serani, PsyD
Psychology Specialist

Children and teens experience feelings of sadness, loss of interest, helplessness and hopelessness—and even irritability, insecurity and aggression—same as adults. Differences are noted in that psychotic features don't usually present in childhood depression like it does in adult depression. Another difference is that children and teens generally experience more somatic symptoms of depression than adults. Symptoms may present in the form of headaches, stomach pains, cramps and muscle aches or "just feeling sick."

As a group, children and teens haven't developed mature language skills and often under-report feeling depressed. Those who are good at being expressive often don't fully realize that what they're going through is depressive in nature—and chalk it up to being "tired" or "not feeling good." Though the mood disorder of depression has a set of symptoms and experiences that are broad and well defined, a good rule of thumb is to understand that children aren't as developed as adults in self-awareness.

Symptoms of depression vary by age and can often be hard to identify in children who don't express their feelings in the same way as adults. Infants and preschoolers are unable to use language to describe sadness, so they might express depression by not showing interest in activities, withdrawing from caregivers, experiencing developmental delays or gaining an inappropriate amount of weight.

School-age children are able to use words more, but they may not understand the stresses in their lives as "depression." Instead, they might show sadness through low self-esteem, physical complaints (e.g., headaches and stomachaches), anxiety or irritability. It's especially difficult to distinguish between depression and normal periods of moodiness in adolescents.

Some signs of depression to look for include inability to take pleasure in activities, excessive sleep, weight change, substance abuse or recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

Dr. Michele Borba
Psychology Specialist

Symptoms of depression are similar at any age, but there are important variances to be aware of if your teen is suffering from depression. Know signs and symptoms of depression and suicidal feelings from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Are any of these signs ones you've noticed in your teen?

  • An increase in physical ailments. Headaches, stomachaches, nausea, sweaty palms, sleeplessness or always sleeping that don't lessen with over-the-counter medication and rest.
  • A marked, sudden or intense change. Something is radically different about your teen's personality, temperament or normal behavior that just is not right.
  • The pain or symptoms don't go away. It lasts everyday or becomes more intense, or just comes and goes, and nothing is easing your teen's pain.
  • Your teen is preoccupied with death or feelings of hopelessness. He is drawing, writing or asking about death, giving away personal belongings, or saying "What's the use?"
  • The sadness interferes with her daily life. Her social, academic or family life is affected. Withdrawal from friends, family and regular activities. Loss of interest in pleasurable activities
  • Unusual neglect of personal appearance, marked personality change
  • Persistent boredom, difficulty concentrating or a decline in the quality of schoolwork
  • Not tolerating praise or rewards; complains of being a bad person or feeling rotten inside

Take these behaviors seriously and immediately seek assistance from a qualified mental health professional.

Adults, children and teenagers experience similar symptoms as a result of depression. Specifically in children and teenagers, the symptoms of depression include a period of sudden sadness, loss of interest in their usual activities such as sports or music and an unexpected decline in grades. Another warning sign would be if the child or teenager talks about hurting him- or herself, death and suicide.

Dr. James J. McGough, MD
Psychiatrist (Therapist)

The symptoms of depression in children and teenagers, similar to symptoms in adults, include:

  • Period of sudden sadness
  • Loss of interest in usual activities such as sports or music
  • An unexpected decline in grades
  • Talking about suicide, death or hurting himself or herself

For the most part, symptoms in kids are the same as those in adults. But in younger kids, you're more likely to notice behavior changes like bedwetting, tearfulness or self-destructive actions (like head banging). Your child might complain about stomachaches or headaches, or say things like "I never do anything right." A teen might become overly secretive, sullen or sleepy. These things don't always mean a child is depressed, but you should monitor them nevertheless. Severe or ongoing symptoms are a particular concern.

Depression in children and teenagers often takes the form of anger and irritability and may be found in conjunction with other mental health problems such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children may not experience sleeplessness as often as adults. Young children may often seem more worried and anxious than adults do during the illness.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Teenagers can have the same symptoms of depression as adults. These include:

  • loss of interest in things they once liked 
  • trouble sleeping or sleeping more than usual
  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • eating more or less than usual
  • difficulty concentrating
  • anxiety
  • restlessness and irritability
  • feeling as though they are useless
  • having suicidal thoughts 

Changes in behavior may also occur. Watch out for the following in your teen:

  • defiant behavior, such as coming home late 
  • criminal behavior 
  • poor school performance
  • alcohol, cigarette or drug use
  • isolation from family and friends

At least 1 in 33 children and at least 1 in 8 adolescents experience major depression, according to Mental Health America. The symptoms for teens and children vary slightly from those in adults. They may include:

  • Social withdrawal, apathy, isolation from friends/family
  • A drop in school performance
  • Play which involves excessive aggression toward others or self, or play that involves persistently sad themes
  • Teens and children sometimes have parents who suffer from major depression

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.