What should I know about pediatric depression?

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Children can sometimes have depression just like adults. But correctly diagnosing childhood depression can be difficult because depression symptoms, such as moodiness and irritability, are not uncommon in growing kids. If you suspect your child is depressed, talk to your child's doctor or a mental health provider. He or she can help determine whether your child has a mood disorder and discuss treatment options if needed.

According to estimates, 2 percent of children and up to 8 percent of teenagers have depression. Unfortunately, it's often overlooked or misunderstood. Myths about depression in kids often mean that they don't get the help they need.

Myth: "Emotional and behavioral problems are a normal part of growing up."

Not always. Sometimes, changes in moods and behavior are signs of depression. Don't be too quick to dismiss them as part of an "awkward phase" or the "terrible teens."

Myth: "Depression in children and teens isn't that big a deal. They'll get over it."

Although some people recover on their own, not treating depression is a big risk to take. Depression can be serious for kids, even life threatening. Depressed kids nearly always have low self-esteem. They may isolate themselves, develop problems with authority and have trouble in school. Some begin to abuse drugs or alcohol. And some—as many as one million each year in the U.S.—attempt suicide. In Utah, suicide is the second leading cause of death in teens.

Myth: "Childhood depression is more straightforward than adult depression."

In many cases, depression overlaps with other disorders. Common coexisting conditions include anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, substance abuse, eating disorders and conduct disorders.

Myth: "There's not much you can do for a depressed kid."

Studies show that children and teens often do best with a combination of medication and counseling. Care management can also be helpful.

Dr. Michele Borba
Psychology Specialist

Three Big Myths About Early Depression:

  • Myth 1: “Preschoolers can’t be depressed.” One big mistake is assuming that those preschool years are all happy-go-lucky. “She’s too young to be depressed.” “Real depression is something only teens or adults get.” The sobering reality is that depression does strike kids—even toddlers–and it hits hard.
  • Myth 2: “Don’t worry. It’s just a phase.” Believing that a child’s sadness is temporary (“He’ll outgrow it.” “She’s just testing you. Don’t give in and she’ll bounce back.”) can have serious outcomes. Waiting for the child to “bounce back” only curtails crucial early treatment. That wait also lets frustration and negative thoughts build. This is not just a passing grumpy mood. Clinical depression is not a phase or a normal stage of development, nor something kids can shrug off.
  • Myth 3: “My pediatrician told me not to worry.” 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.

Depression can be devastating and have a lasting effect on the child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. The long-term consequences are too severe to ignore. The best news is when diagnosed early and properly treated, kids almost always can be helped and feel better, and the earlier you seek treatment the better. The key is to make sure to get the right diagnosis and treatment.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

As teenagers mature, the many changes they go through can often lead to irritability and moodiness—but if such symptoms last for weeks or months, depression may be the cause. The teenage years are when children try to figure out their places in the world. They are seeking independence from parents, dealing with stress from peers and school, and sex hormones are starting to take effect. All that upheaval is partly why diagnosing depression in teens is more difficult than in adults. But if your teen's sadness and irritability last for weeks or months, he or she may have depression.  If you suspect that your child is depressed, talk with his or her doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent a severe depressive episode.

Dr. Ellen S. Rome, MD
Pediatrician

Depression is a condition that has many symptoms. In this video, Dr. Rome provides the clues to look for if you think your teen may be clinically depressed.

Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD
Psychology Specialist

Don't let your depressed teen blow you off, says psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein. Watch the video to learn what to do if your teenager becomes depressed.

Dr. Deborah Serani, PsyD
Psychology Specialist

Pediatric Depression is the clinical category that covers depression in children—from babies to adolescents. Research shows that up to 1% of infants can experience depression, as can 4% of preschoolers, 5% of school aged children and 11% percent of adolescents. 

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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.