Can you identify depression in your child?

Adolescent depression has become a major public health problem with one in 33 children having clinical depression (Mental Health America).  According to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, the age when symptoms first appear is around 11 years of age.  However, the first diagnosis of depression is typically not until the age of 15.  Untreated, depression is linked to school failure, impaired social functioning, teen pregnancy, and suicide.

This means that it is important for parents to pay attention to changes in their children’s behavior and to listen to what their children are saying, especially since it has been shown that counseling and resilience training have been found to prevent the onset of depression disorders.  By catching the signs of depression early, parents can advocate for preventative measures, which will enhance their child’s coping skills and resilience.  It may also prevent the development of poor health outcomes and functional impairments, such as lower grades.

Adolescents may not show signs of depression in the same way as adults and each child may express different symptoms.  Some adolescents may show signs of hopelessness, have a lack of interest in the things around them such as friends or family, or may be unable to concentrate.  Still others may express their symptoms through their irritability and agitation, which can manifest themselves in the form of your child being fidgety, restless, or moving around more or less than normal.  A child’s depression can also be expressed through isolating him or herself from others and spending hours watching TV, playing video games, or being on the Internet.  While most adolescents display some of these behaviors, symptoms of depression are usually longer lasting and persistent.

Dr. Andrea Dunn

Pediatricians, primary care providers, and counselors at a local community Mental Health Center can guide parents and children through the treatment process.  Two of the most studied forms of treatment are medication and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  While both are common treatment options and have the most scientific evidence to support their effectiveness, neither option is guaranteed to be successful.  It is important for parents and children to remember that treatment is a process of trial and error.  If one option does not work, do not give up.  Instead, pursue another option until the best match is found for your child.

A third option that is being studied more is exercise.  Studies that have been conducted with adults have found a reduction in depressive symptoms in participants who were receiving the exercise treatment.  Therefore, exercise may also be effective in adolescents by helping to reduce depressive symptoms.

Written by: Andrea Dunn, PhD

If you are interested in learning more about an adolescent depression study in Denver, which is examining the role of exercise to treat depression, please contact the Project Coordinator at (303) 565-4321 x3673 or visit  Additional information and resources can also be found on Facebook ( and Twitter (@DOSEforTeens).  The study is being funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.


Birmaher B, Ryan ND, Williamson DE, Brent DA, Kaufman J, Dahl RE, Perel J, Nelson B. Childhood and adolescent depression: a review of the past 10 years. Part I. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 1996;35:1427-39
Burke KC, Burke JD, Jr., Regier DA, Rae DS. Age at onset of selected mental disorders in five community populations. Arch Gen Psychiatry 47:511-518, 1990.
Dolgan JI. Depression in children. Pediatr Ann 1990 Jan;19(1):45-50
Dunn AL, Trivedi MH, Kampert JB, Clark CG, Chambliss HO. Exercise treatment for depression: efficacy and dose response. Am J Prev Med 28:1-8, 2005.
Harrington R, Fudge H, Rutter M, Pickles A, Hill J. Adult outcomes of childhood and adolescent depression. I. Psychiatric status. Arch Gen Psychiatry 1990 May;47(5):465-73
Kessler RC, Avenevoli S, Ries MK. Mood disorders in children and adolescents: an epidemiologic perspective. Biol Psychiatry 49:1002-1014, 2001.
Kovacs M. Presentation and course of major depressive disorder during childhood and later years of the life span. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 1996 Jun;35(6):705-15
McCauley E, Myers K. The longitudinal clinical course of depression in children and adolescents. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 1992;1:183-96
Rao U, Ryan ND, Birmaher B, Dahl RE, Williamson DE, Kaufman J, Rao R, Nelson B. Unipolar depression in adolescents: clinical outcome in adulthood. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 1995 May;34(5):566-78
Rao U, Weissman MM, Martin JA, Hammond RW. Childhood depression and risk of suicide: a preliminary report of a longitudinal study. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 1993 Jan;32(1):21-7