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Depression in children and adolescents

When all what children see is doom and gloom

Depression in children and adolescents
Depression | ©: GiZGRAPHICS - Fotolia

Depression in childhood or adolescence can find expression in different symptoms. However, what happens in the brain in most cases quite similar. During a depressive phase, the brain messengers are pretty much messed up. Particularly those responsible for feelings of happiness. As a result, the messengers are over- or under-produced. This means: Depression can manifest itself in very different ways.

For example, there in the classic clinical depression those messengers are significantly reduced. On the other hand, if we are talking about manic depression those messengers are over produced. This means there is a constant up and down of those messengers in the brain of the affected child. That leads to alternating states reaching from apathy to great joy. Besides all those different forms of depression it must be noted, for this state of mind to be categorised as depression it has to last for at least two weeks. Otherwise, we could be dealing with an emotional upset, which is completely normal.

Depression: Is it just a phase or is there something more?

There are some symptoms regarding a depressive state in children which need to be monitored more carefully. One of those situations would be before or after stressful circumstances. That is the time when children are most prone to suffer psychological trauma. These situations include divorce, constant disputes between the parents, the death or illness of a loved one, abuse, a major accident or any other painful and dreadful experiences. In such situations, pay particular attention to the child; now is the time where it is very vulnerable and open to harm. There are still certain risk groups, which have a generally higher risk. That would be children, who for various reasons have already a harder life. To those children, you should pay particular attention because they pose a higher risk to develop depression. For example, highly gifted children are also more likely to develop depression. To recognise a possible depression in children as quickly as possible, it is important to know how this disorder develops.

Discovering possible depression is much harder in children than it is in adults.

Particularly with very young children, but also with teenagers, depression is much more difficult to discover than in most adults. The symptoms of depression can be many and also vary slightly with age. Especially with young children, depression can show in apathy as well as aggressiveness. This might be added by insomnia and other psychosomatic aches.

Classic signs of depression

Depression in children and adolescents
Depression in children and adolescents | ©: Kwest - Fotolia

Slightly older children and adolescents suddenly start to philosophise about life. Of course, this in itself is not necessarily bad. However, if those thoughts about the meaning of life lead to self-doubt and the young person becomes highly critical of himself, the situation can become problematic. More and more those children are caught up in their own thoughts and are less likely to focus on their schoolwork. This in turn leads to poorer grades, which only reinforces their own self-doubt. Once a young person gets caught in this never ending flow of thoughts, it is very difficult to get out of there without enlisting professional help. Because of repeatedly negative (self) evaluations and associations a long lasting sadness develops quickly. If all fun is gone and life seems meaningless, it becomes almost impossible for an affected person to get himself out of this predicament.


Initial symptoms of depression may be sadness, self-doubt and a noticeable loss of meaning of life. You can notice that mostly through a continuing and worsening apathy which may repeatedly alternate with aggressive bouts. Unfortunately, in most cases parents are not aware of this change of behaviour and only notice it when the depression in their child has already progressed. One of the reasons is that the child often does not understand what is happening to them and, therefore, is unable to express his concerns to their parents. In adolescents, however, it is often shame that holds them back to open up to their parents. The other reason for teenagers to keep their depression under wrap is the general unacceptability towards people with depression.

What can parents do to prevent depression?

Preventing depression in children

First of all, for most parents it is paramount that it does not even get that far. In reality, there is only one real preventive measure - communicating trust, honesty and openness, particularly within the family. If children are open towards their parents, there is a greater chance that they will come already earlier and ask for help. However, that children are able to this by themselves, assumes a certain type of upbringing. The child must be sure, that it will meet understanding and getting the help it requires. If the child already knows beforehand that the parents’ answer will be something like, “don’t be dumb” or “it'll get better”, than there is no reason for the child to ask for help. If parents take their children seriously, already in small problems (remember, what seems a trifle for you can be important to your child) will make it so much easier for the child, to come to you for help at the beginning of a larger problem.

Seek immediate professional help

Do you suspect that your child is going through a depressive phase? It is listless, often cries and is on his wits end?

As a parent, what can you do and how to respond correctly in this situation?

The most important thing is not to downplay or even dismiss the child. A child definitely does not outgrow its depression and there is a 75% risk of a relapse within the next five years. I urge you to listen and understand your child but do not push for a solution at this stage. Hold back on giving good advice and as difficult as this may be, do not try to cheer up your child. This only reinforces for the child or young person how bad the situation indeed is. What you need to do is get all the information possible and seek advice. Depression is a condition which needs to be treated. This can be done on the basis of an outpatient with an experienced psychologist or psychiatrist or as an inpatient through a psychiatric clinic.

(Note: Like with adults it is not always easy to find the right therapist for your child. It is crucial that patient and therapist really get on well with each other. That they build a rapport and the child knows this is a safe place, where he is in the right hands, can trust the therapist and will get the necessary help. In the case the therapist decides to medicate your child straight away, you might be looking for a second opinion or a another therapist. There are too many children who spent 1 -2 years in a clinic and even they were medicated, nothing really changed).

As already mentioned, depression is not a laughing matter. Untreated it has the power to turn your entire life into a marathon or misery. In this context, it is also important that you take suicide notes seriously. For many sufferers’ death seems to be the only way out of this dilemma. And not just that. Over time, this “resolution” becomes more and more attractive. In particular, when left untreated or there is no real improvement. In addition to the support from parents and psychotherapeutic treatment, teachers can help to prevent situations as such or at least contribute to improving them. In particular, at an early stage a good educator can help to recognise a depressive phase and provide help at the earliest possible time.

What can teachers do?

Unlike their parents, a teacher or youth worker only sees the child for a limited time each day. However, this may be enough to notice changes in the behaviour of a child. Indifference, apathy, listlessness or aggressive behaviour could be the first sign in the context of depression.

Sensitivity and empathy: making time, being able to
listen and demonstrate emotional intelligence.
©: alephnull - Fotolia

An experienced educator or youth worker will notice these changes at an early stage. Whether this is the beginning of a depression, an emotional upset or any other reason, cannot immediately be determined.

Therefore, for example, teachers and youth workers can play an essential role in the early detection of depression in children. Of course, you should not overreact. To begin carefully seek a dialogue with the child. For example, if there was a recent death in the family, a depressed mood can be normal; even over a longer period. If the child, however, has no explanation for his behaviour the dialogue should definitely be shifted to the parents. The sooner depression is diagnosed, the better it can be treated and the better the outcome. If in doubt, a school psychologist or counsellor may be contacted, who could decide what has to happen next.

With the early detection of depression, there is also a certain way of dealing with the child appropriately. Any caring educator and youth worker should reassure the child that he can come to him with any problems at all. The same rules apply for parents as well: always take the child seriously, no matter how insignificant the problem seems to be. In general, an appreciative attitude towards the child will help to overcome a depressive phase even faster. However, the educators’ possibilities are only very limited. Therefore, early recognition is crucial as well is supporting the parents as soon as possible with all the relevant information.


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