Posted by: jedwardswright | April 7, 2011

Could My Child Be Depressed?

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is a physical condition that can affect people of any age.  There is no “you must be this high to ride” sign on this rollercoaster.  The cranky, sullen child in the classroom, or the sensitive withdrawn youth in a Junior High church group, may be being difficult or refusing to participate because of a deep sadness that gnaws inside.  Always remember, if it is tough trying to deal with these kids, how miserable it must be to be one of those kids.


MDD, which is also called clinical depression, is caused by an imbalance in certain hormones, chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain. Some individuals are born with a genetic predisposition to developing MDD, which means the potential to sink into hopelessness is actually written on their DNA. For this reason, clinical depression tends to appear among people who are related.

Personally, I have no recollection of a time when I did not have depression. This is not unusual. In other cases, a traumatic event, a severe loss or abuse may trigger that first descent into a dark place.

Everyone gets discouraged and upset when life’s difficult challenges come along. This is circumstantial depression. When a child with a tendency to develop clinical depression hits a major speed bump, the lack of balance in brain chemicals may make a disappointment a catastrophe.

Consider the familiar picture of someone hanging over a cliff clinging to a rope. Naturally that situation would be enough to make anyone unhappy and fearful. Now imagine that instead, the rope is weak at one point. When help arrives, the person who has a thick, intact rope has a much better chance of surviving that traumatic event intact than the poor soul who is “dangling by a thread.” The child with a healthier mental state has more resources to pull through a crisis than the one who is already struggling to cope because of imbalanced brain chemistry.

This explains (at least in part) why one child can lose a parent and recover enough to live a productive, contented life, and another will always struggle to deal with the emotional fallout from that early loss. It gives insight into the otherwise inexplicable question of why a teen who seems to have it all together might respond to a breakup by committing suicide. It is not a lack of effort or character: it is a physical disability that affects the emotional response in the brain, particularly in times of stress.

How can I know the difference between a typical response to pain and tragedy in my child from a descent into clinical depression?

One key factor is time. If a child’s grief or anger continues for weeks or months longer than expected, the possibility that there is a medical cause needs to be considered, and a pediatrician or qualified child therapist should be consulted. Ask your family doctor for a referral. (Actually, obtaining counseling for any child dealing with difficult circumstances is wise. Professional assistance may help a young person to adapt more quickly, and perhaps even prevent or reduce a depressive reaction.)

Another consideration is the extent to which your child is coping with the demands of everyday life. When a youngster consistently refuses to get ready for school, or ends up in the principal’s office on a regular basis, depression is one possible cause. If you as a parent can’t figure out what the problem is, or are unable to relieve your child’s distress, a professional evaluation is a good idea.

Consult with your child’s teacher. Her experience in dealing with many students of the same age gives her a more objective perspective. She knows what typical behavior for that level is and when there is cause for concern.  She interacts with your child for long periods every day, so her comments are usually valuable. Ask the teacher for a letter describing her concerns that you can show to whichever professionals you decide to visit. She will probably be pleased to write up a note.

In my next post, I will describe further how a child may exhibit symptoms of clinical depression, and discuss treatment options.

[The opinions stated in this post are based on my personal experience as a child with depression, and my years as an educator working with special needs children, particularly those in programs for behavioral issues.]


  1. This is something I worry about so often. So far my children do not show any signs of childhood depression — neither did I. I started experiencing depression in my senior year of high school. But I watch my kids closely, even at 7 1/2, 5 and 4.

  2. I addressed this very thing in a post called Parenting With Depression
    which would have appeared before you joined us here, if you would like to check it out.
    I have two children. My son had a brief brush with depression in his late teens and that was it. It could have been simply circumstantial depression. My daughter has never dealt with MDD.
    On the other hand, my son inherited a chronic hereditory disease that we didn’t even know existed. You never can tell.
    If I didn’t believe in God I’d call it “The Genetic Crapshoot of Life!”

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