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What to Expect During Your Child's Depression Treament

The 3 Important Phases


Updated September 30, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Typically when your child's depression treatment is decided, it will be divided into 3 phases defined by the American Psychiatric Association's Practice Guidelines for Treatment of Depression: Acute, maintenance, and continuation. These important phases aid in your child's recovery and aim to keep her symptom free.

1. The Acute Phase

The acute phase of treatment is all about finding a treatment that significantly reduces or eliminates depressive symptoms in your child and restores normal daily functioning.

The acute phase will likely last between 6 and 20 weeks, depending on your child's response to her treatment. You can expect changes to her treatment program based on the improvement or lack of improvement of her depressive symptoms.

Typical treatments may be medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both. Of course, there are additional treatments options that your child's doctor may recommend.

During this time period, finding a safe an effective dose of medication and/or finding an effective therapy program and schedule is essential. Your child will likely meet with her health care providers frequently to assess her progress.

2. The Continuation Phase

The continuation phase immediately follows the acute phase. The goal of this phase is to prevent relapse, or the recurrence of depressive symptoms in your child. The same effective treatment plan identified in the acute phase is typically continued in this phase.

The continuation phase also varies in length, and may last from 4 to 9 months. Typically, your child will continue to meet with her health care providers frequently during this time period.

If your child has a relapse of depression during this phase, a new treatment plan will be identified. However, if she continues to be symptom free, she will move on to the next phase.

3. The Maintenance Phase

The maintenance phase follows the continuation phase. The goal of this phase is to protect your child from a new depressive episode.

The time frame of this phase is the most variable: It may last from 1 year to a lifetime, depending on your child's functioning and symptoms.

Again, the same treatment plan that was identified in the acute phase will be used. However, your child's health care provider may chose to change the medication dose or therapy schedule based on her specific circumstances.

During the maintenance phase, therapy sessions may become less frequent. However, this is dependent upon your child's symptoms and the specific type of therapy she is receiving.

Is Lifetime Treatment Necessary?

Every child's treatment needs are different. Your child may not need to be treated her entire life, or even years. However, a treatment program should never be stopped without consulting with your child's doctor. Stopping medication suddenly can have serious adverse effects on your child's physical and mental health.

The decision to discontinue treatment is based on many factors like:

  • Presence of additional mental illnesses
  • Severity of past depressive episodes
  • Current daily functioning
  • Physical health
  • Risk for future depressive episodes

While it can be upsetting to see your child battle with depression, it is important that she have a safe an effective treatment as long as she may need it. Knowing what to expect from her depression treatment may help in easing your fears -- and hers, too.


American Psychiatric Association. Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders, Compodium. Arlington, Va: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc; 2006.

Rongrong Tao, Jarrette K. Moore, Taryn L. Mayes, Graham J. Esmile. "Depression in children and adolescents: Optimizing treatment." Pediatric Health. December 2007 1.2: 217.

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