Depressive Disorders (Children and Adolescents) (Symptoms)

The diagnostic criteria and key defining features of major depressive disorder in children and adolescents are the same as they are for adults. Research has shown that childhood depression often persists, recurs, and continues into adulthood, especially if it goes untreated. The presence of childhood depression also tends to be a predictor of more severe illnesses in adulthood.

However, recognition and diagnosis of the disorder may be more difficult in youth for several reasons. A child with depression may pretend to be sick, refuse to go to school, cling to a parent, or worry that a parent may die. Older children may sulk, get into trouble at school, be negative and irritable, and feel misunderstood. Because these signs may be viewed as normal mood swings typical of children as they move through developmental stages, it may be difficult to accurately diagnose a young person with depression.

Before puberty, boys and girls are equally likely to develop depressive disorders. By age 15, however, girls are twice as likely as boys to have experienced a major depressive episode.

Depression in adolescence comes at a time of great personal change: when boys and girls are forming an identity distinct from their parents, grappling with gender issues and emerging sexuality, and making decisions for the first time in their lives. Depression in adolescence frequently co-occurs with other disorders such as anxiety, disruptive behavior, eating disorders, or substance abuse. It can also lead to increased risk for suicide.

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Symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder Common to Adults, Children and Adolescents:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyable
  • Decreased energy, fatigue or being "slowed down"
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain

Five or more of these symptoms must persist for two or more weeks before a diagnosis of major depression is indicated.

Signs That May Be Associated with Depression in Children and Adolescents:

  • Frequent vague, nonspecific physical complaints such as headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, or tiredness
  • Frequent absence from school or poor performance in school
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home
  • Outbursts of shouting, complaining, unexplained irritability, or crying
  • Being bored
  • Lack of interest in playing with friends
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Social isolation, poor communication
  • Fear of death
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Increased irritability, anger or hostility
  • Reckless behavior
  • Difficulty with relationships

While the recovery rate from a single episode of major depression in children and adolescents is quite high, episodes are likely to recur. In addition, youth with dysthymic disorder are at risk for developing major depression. Prompt identification and treatment of depression can reduce its duration and severity and associated functional impairment.

Depressive Disorders (Children and Adolescents). Last reviewed 07/31/2008

Sources:

  • National Institute of Mental Health
  • Journal of Affective Disorders
  • Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • Annals of Neurology
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