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What should I do if I think my child is depressed?

Dr. Michele Borba
Psychology Specialist

No one knows your child better than you. If you suspect something is wrong, chances are you’re right. Get help! Do know that your pediatrician may not be trained to spot early childhood depression so seek medical advice of a child psychologist or child psychiatrist who specializes in early childhood depression and anxiety. Call your county mental health, a pediatric hospital, a university facility that provides mental health services for young children, the American Psychological Association or American Academy of Pediatrics.

Early treatment is essential, but the best type of treatment is controversial. Many advocates are concerned that doctors are too quick too often in prescribing powerful psychiatric drugs. (Do beware anytime a doctor offers such drugs as the “magic cure.”) There is little research on the effects of psychiatric medicine in very young children so therapy should be tried first. The conundrum? How to effectively treat very young children who have limited language and cognitive abilities.

If you're worried that your child or teen has depression, here are a few tips:

  • Watch for symptoms of depression. 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.
  • Check in with a doctor if you notice any mental, behavioral, or emotional changes that worry you. It's hard to tell the difference between growing pains and depression. So when in doubt, seek professional help. Depression is serious and highly treatable for children.
  • If your child is diagnosed with depression, learn as much as you can. Good information will help you make good decisions for your child's treatment. Should you see a specialist in childhood mental health? Should medication be part of treatment? When is the right time for therapy? What can you and your family do to help your child recover? Talk to your child's doctor.
  • Parents and caregivers should monitor depressed children carefully—especially in the first few months of treatment, and especially if medication is used. Children with depression need to be watched for irritability, agitation, or suicidal thinking or behavior.

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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.