Understanding Your Teenager’s Depression

If you are the parent of a teenager, dealing with moodiness may seem like a fact of life.  But for many teens, something more serious than moodiness is affecting their behavior. Today, at least one in eight teenagers may experience depression. Severe depression in teens can even lead to suicide, the second leading cause of death among adolescents.

As a parent, you may wonder what you can do to determine if your own teenager has problems with depression.  Learn more about the nature of depression and how to respond if your teen exhibits warning signs, and you may make a difference in the life of someone you love.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

Depression can affect people of any age, and it often first strikes individuals in adolescence.  The disorder crosses all gender, racial, and socioeconomic lines.  Depression in young people is of particular concern because of the increased impulsivity adolescents often display, as well as the lack of a mature, grounded sense of self.

While most people tend to associate depression with sadness and tearfulness, teenagers often exhibit different symptoms than adults or express feelings in different ways. For example, depressed teens often:

  • Demonstrate rebellious behavior, such as skipping school, sexually acting out, or shoplifting. Rather than showing sadness, teens tend to demonstrate anger, frustration, and irritability.
  • Have many somatic or physical complaints, such as frequent stomachaches, headaches, or fatigue. Other physical changes can include sleep problems, such as insomnia or excessive sleeping, as well as changes in eating habits, often associated with sudden weight loss or gain.
  • Engage in underage drinking or abuse drugs. While teens may use alcohol or drugs to dull their negative feelings, their effects often have the opposite effect.
  • Spend increased time alone, behind closed doors. Teens normally enjoy time with peers and busy schedules, so loss of interest in friends and activities should be of concern.

In addition to the above behaviors, watch for any of the following in your teen:

  • Sudden drops in school grades
  • Restlessness or difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and/or excessive guilt
  • Frequent sadness, crying, or anxiety
  • Increased sensitivity to criticism

While any symptoms of depression or other sudden behavior changes should be taken seriously, parents should be particularly alert to warning signs of suicide, such as:

  • Preoccupation with death and dying
  • Giving away possessions to others
  • Talking as if no one cares about them
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness about the future
  • Expressing suicidal thoughts or threats

How Parents Can Help

The most critical way a parent can help a depressed teen is by recognizing the above symptoms.  By knowing signs and symptoms and by maintaining regular communication with your teen, you can potentially identify depression in its early stages.

If your teenager displays any of the symptoms of depression for an extended period, or if symptoms seem severe, don’t be afraid to intervene.  Begin by talking with your teen. Don’t let depression be the elephant in the room. Explain what you have observed, acknowledge that you are concerned, and explain why.  Make sure you talk in a non-judgmental and caring way.  Encourage your teen to open up to you or another respected adult about his or her feelings.

If your teen is reluctant to talk to you, it may be time to consider professional help. The experience may be less threatening if you begin with a visit to the pediatrician or family physician.  Your doctor can conduct a depression screening, which may include a physical examination and an interview with your teen.  You may then be referred to a mental health professional for follow-up.  Include your teen in the decision-making process so that greater buy-in will be achieved. Treatment may include psychotherapy and/or medication.

While depression can be a confusing and frightening experience for both teens and their parents, prompt treatment is generally successful. A depressed teenager today can go on to live a normal adult life and learn to cope more successfully with both his or her own moods and life’s challenges.