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Children / Health / Teens/Tweens

How to recognize depression in teens

Many of us were moved by our recent guest blogger Casey’s story about depression and overdose while pregnant. She was so brave to share her story with the world so that could help others.

I co-own a company that does health education research (and multimedia development around the research – that’s where I come in) and we try to help people in many different areas of health. One of our research scientists, Andrea Dunn, specializes in exercise for the treatment of depression. After having Casey’s post here on Mile High Mama’s, I asked Dr. Dunn to write a follow-up article for us, to help us understand possible signs of depression as our children grow.

I thank her for sharing this very important information.
– Aimee


Recognizing Teen Depression
by Andrea Dunn, PhD
Klein Buendel, Inc.

Recently, the Journal of Adolescent Health published findings indicating that over 8% of children between the ages of 12 and 17 have experienced a major depressive episode, while one in 33 children have clinical depression (Mental Health America). According to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, the age at first symptom is around 11. However, the first diagnosis of depression is typically not until 15. Depression left untreated 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 they are saying, especially since it has been shown that counseling and resilience training may 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 these signs of depression in the same way as adults and each child is different. Some teens may show signs of hopelessness, have a lack of interest in the things around them such as friends or family, or are unable to concentrate. However, other adolescents may express their symptoms through irritability and agitation. These expressions of irritability and agitation can manifest themselves in the form of being fidgety, restless, or move around more or less than normal. Or a child’s depression can be expressed in the opposite manner by isolating him or herself from others, playing video games, and spending hours watching TV or being on the Internet. While some of this behavior may be able to be written off as “typical teen behavior,” symptoms of depression are longer-lasting and turn these unusual behaviors into the usual behaviors and moods.

If you think your son or daughter might be exhibiting signs of depression, you can talk to you pediatrician/primary care provider, or contact your local community mental health center. Trained providers will be able to help you decide on treatment options. Two common forms of treatment are medication and talk therapy. A third option that has an increasing amount of evidence is exercise. Exercise may help to reduce depressive symptoms and may be a useful coping strategy.

If you are interested in learning more about an adolescent depression study in Denver that is looking at the role exercise can play in the treatment of depression, please contact the Project Coordinator at (303) 565-4321 x3673 or visit The study is being funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Whatever treatment option you decide to pursue for your child, remember that treatment is a process of trial and error. If one option does not work, do not give up. Instead, pursue another until you identify the one that is the best match for your child.


  • 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
  • Dolgan JI. Depression in children. Pediatr Ann 1990 Jan;19(1):45-50
  • 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

Photo by D Sharon Pruitt.

Author: Aimee

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1 Comment

  1. “According to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, the age at first symptom is around 11. However, the first diagnosis of depression is typically not until 15.”

    Interesting finding and such an important topic. Let’s face it: most teens go through a moody phase and it makes it that much more important for parents to be vigilant when watching for the signs of a deeper issue.

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