Recognizing Symptoms of Depression in Teens and Children
Depression is a treatable, mental illness characterized by long periods of low, or depressed, mood that can occur at any stage of life. Recognizing the signs and symptoms of depression in teens and children can be a challenge though. It can be difficult to tell the difference between major depressive disorder symptoms and normal, moody behavior. Because children may not display the typical symptoms of depression, this article on what a depressed child looks like in real life may be helpful to you.
It is hard to estimate the number of teens and children with depression as not all doctors agree on diagnostic criteria. The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) makes few distinctions between depression symptoms in teens and children versus adults. Depression in children and teens is not rare though. One estimate is between 0.9% - 4.7% preschool-age to adolescent youths meet the criteria for depression.1
Symptoms of Depression in Teens
Depression symptoms in teenagers can potentially lead to very serious consequences – suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents. The pressures of school, peers, bullies and changing bodies can all add to the challenges of dealing with teenage depression.
The DSM-IV-TR diagnoses depressive disorders in teens almost identically to adults. However, the diagnostic symptoms of depression in teens include the possibility of an irritable mood, rather than a depressed one. Depression symptoms in teens often co-occur with other mental health issues like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorders, substance abuse and behavioral problems. (take depression test for teenagers)
While most symptoms of depression in teens match that of adults, some depression symptoms are seen specifically in teenagers. These include:2
- Disruptive, behavioral problems, often in boys
- Preoccupation with body image and performance, often in girls
- Anxiety, often in girls
- Poor school performance
- School absenteeism
- Talk/threats of running away
Child Depression Symptoms
Similar to teens, the DSM-IV-TR makes little distinction between adult and child depression symptoms. Differences in diagnostic symptoms of depression in children include:
- Mood may be irritable rather than depressed
- Weight and appetite changes may include failure to gain expected weight
It's important to look at all surrounding mental health issues as they may include post-traumatic stress disorder or sleep disorders. Child-onset depression is also thought to be a common precursor to bipolar disorder, so symptoms of even brief mania or hypomania should be carefully evaluated. Information on treatment of depression in children here.
Last Updated: 16 June 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD