Depression is a serious medical condition that can negatively affect a child’s ability to connect with friends and family, enjoy normal daily activities, attend school and concentrate while there, and enjoy childhood.

Proper diagnosis and a treatment plan is a good start, but working through depression requires time and can include relapses. It helps to know what to expect during the process and when to seek additional help.

Understand the symptoms

For adults, the defining feature of a major depressive episode includes depressed mood nearly every day for a two-week period, but for kids, you are more likely to see irritability.

Watch for these other symptoms:

  • Irritable, sad, withdrawn, or bored most of the time
  • Does not take pleasure in usual activities
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Fatigue
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

What to expect from treatment

Treatment for a depression can take time and sometimes involves some trial and error. No two kids are the same, and it’s important to remain patient with the process to help your child feel safe.

  • Education: Educating your child about depression is a crucial first step. This helps your child understand the possible causes (genetics, environmental factors, bullying, stress), understand brain chemistry (low serotonin), and reduces self-blame. It also normalizes what your child is going through.
  • Psychotherapy: Counseling is a good option for kids struggling with depression. There are different kinds of counseling and what works for one might not work for another. For very young children, play therapy is an option. For older kids and teens, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be effective. It can take time to find the best patient/therapist match. Make several calls and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You know your child best.
  • Medication: Medication might be necessary for moderate to severe cases, but medication works best when combined with counseling. Medication management is important. Close supervision of the prescribing physician is recommended.
  • Hospitalization: For severe cases of depression, including suicidal ideation, hospitalization is sometimes necessary.

What to expect at home

Even with medication, there is no quick fix for depression. Treatment can be long and arduous. Parents can help support children by doing the following:

  • Encouraging daily exercise (this does not have to include an organized sport. Family walks count.)
  • Supervising any medication (it’s too much to ask a depressed child to manage his own medication)
  • Make time to talk. Counseling will help your child begin to open up and verbalize feelings; it’s your job to listen and provide unconditional support when your child opens up at home.
  • Cook healthy meals. Healthy lifestyle choices can help with the treatment process.
  • Encourage healthy sleep habits

What to expect at school

It’s very difficult to perform well in school when thinking and concentration are impaired by depression. It’s important to include the classroom teacher and a school counselor or psychologist on the treatment team to help your child work through this difficult time.

There are classroom accommodations that might benefit your child during this time. Talk to the classroom teacher about the following:

  • Extended time for lengthy assignments and tests
  • Breaking down assignments into manageable pieces (this is particularly helpful for kids who appear “overwhelmed”)
  • Help to create study or homework schedules
  • Provide copy of class notes (helpful for impaired concentration)
  • Taking tests in a quiet room, free from distractions

It’s also helpful to have a plan in place should your child need a break during the day. Examples might include a daily check-in with a school counselor or psychologist in the early stage of treatment and a weekly appointment as your child stabilizes.

What to expect from your child

Children and adolescents are not mini-adults. They are developing and changing at a rapid pace, even when they experience a depressive episode. As such, symptoms can intensify and lessen throughout treatment. You might find that the depression seems to have lifted, only to notice a relapse in depressive behavior a few days later.

Irritability, feeling overwhelmed, and outbursts are common in depressed children. As hard as this can be for the parent on the receiving end of these behaviors, it is important that parents remain calm and focus on active listening. It’s the natural tendency for the parent to want to “fix” it or somehow put a stop to it, but mental illness is complicated. It can’t be fixed or stopped. It can, however, improve. With proper treatment and supports in place, your child can thrive and enjoy childhood once again.


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Last Updated: Mar 7, 2019