Depression | Diagnosis & Treatments

How is depression diagnosed?

The first step in treating your child is forming an accurate and complete diagnosis. If you suspect your child is depressed, a mental health clinician (who may be a child/adolescent psychiatrist, child psychologist, or a social worker who specializes in child and adolescent mental health) will ask you and your child to come in for a visit. The clinician will ask about your child’s:

  • symptoms
  • social history
  • medical history
  • academic history
  • family history

It can sometimes be hard to distinguish between sadness and grief and major depression. In order to correctly diagnose your child with depression, doctors use a standardized set of two types of symptoms that must be present.

Core symptoms

  • persistent sadness
  • persistent loss of interest in almost all activities

Associated symptoms

  • loss of energy
  • loss of appetite (or increase)
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • agitation or irritability
  • feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • indecisiveness
  • wanting to die

Depression is when one or both of the core symptoms persist for at least two weeks along with five of the associated symptoms. If the symptoms are due to substance abuse, a medical illness, or grief over a recent loss, they are usually not signs of depression.

When children have some symptoms, but not enough to indicate depression, they may have dysthemia.

What are the treatment options for depression?


Talking with a therapist can help your child learn to manage sad feelings by developing new strategies. These include learning how to:

  • identify and talk about feelings
  • stop thinking automatically negative thoughts
  • find activities that are soothing and comforting
  • discover and appreciate good things about himself
  • build hope for the future

Therapy can also help your child:

  • work through difficult relationships and situations
  • identify stressors in and figure out how to avoid or handle them
  • improve his view of her environment

As with any treatment, parents and teachers play a vital and supportive role.


If your child's depression does not improve with therapy, or the depression is very severe, the doctor may prescribe antidepressants. These not only help your child feel better, but also help with motivation and coping skills in therapy.

Unfortunately, no single medication is effective in all children, and a trial-and-error period may last for weeks, or even months, as doctors find the best treatment for your child. When considering medication as a treatment option, the clinician will take into account:

  • how well the drug has treats the symptoms your child has
  • family history
  • side effects of the drug
  • how easy it will be to take the medication as prescribed

It's important to remember — and for your child to remember — that in order to have a chance for it to work, medication must be taken as prescribed.

Learn more about psychiatric medications for children and adolescents.


While not a treatment in the strictest sense of the word, paying attention to your child's environment can also help treat depression. If a situation at home could be contributing to depression, family therapy may be helpful. If other circumstances are triggering the sad feelings, and it is at all possible to change them, doing so will increase the chance of successful treatment.

If your child is diagnosed with a mental health condition in addition to depression, such as anxiety, treatment must address both conditions. If your child's depression is particularly severe, debilitating, or self-endangering, hospitalization may be required.