The ups and downs of the teenage years can be very confusing for parents. Mood changes are normal and should be expected as children navigate through their adolescence. However, there are many teens who suffer from depression which is significantly different from common mood changes in teenagers and which can be very serious.
What is Depression?
Some statistics show that four out of every 100 teenagers experience some sort of serious depression each year. Most individuals who experience some form of depression can be helped with treatment. The difference between depression and normal sadness is usually related to the strength of the feeling as well as the persistence of the feeling. Individuals who are depressed usually experience these strong feelings for weeks at a time (often times much longer) rather than just for a brief period of time. Some common symptoms of depression include:
- Feeling sad all the time
- Frequent crying
- Feeling irritable or angry
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
- Feeling worthless or guilty
- Lack of motivation or enthusiasm
- Fatigue – lack of energy
- Poor concentration
- Thoughts of suicide and death
- Feel like nothing good will ever happen
- No longer enjoying things that used to be fun
Adolescent Depression versus Adult Depression:
Adolescent depression can be very different from depression in adults. In teens it is more common for depression to present as irritability or anger. Depressed teens may be hostile, easily frustrated and may have frequent, angry outbursts which is not necessarily what you think about when you hear “depression”. In addition, teenagers experiencing depression may complain of physical ailments such as headaches or stomach-aches. Further, teens who are depressed are highly sensitive to criticism due to their already low feelings of self-worth. Finally, teens who are depressed may not isolate from everyone in their lives, however, will have noticeable changes in their interactions and may pull away from certain individuals in their lives (often times parents).
What Can Happen if Depression Goes Untreated?
If a teenager’s depression goes untreated the following behaviors could result:
- Problems in school – drop in grades, poor attendance, dropping out
- Running away – is a cry for help as teens try to escape their feelings
- Substance abuse – teens may try to “self medicate” or escape from their feelings
- Low self-esteem – teens may have intense feeling of unworthiness
- Eating disorders – often signs of untreated depression
- Internet addiction – is an escape from their real life but actually increases isolation
- Self-injury – is a coping mechanism for teens and an effort to control the pain inside
- Reckless behavior – engage in dangerous behaviors because they have stopped caring
- Violence – (usually boys) self-hatred is sometimes acted out
- Suicide – any thoughts, comments or behaviors should be taken very seriously. If your teen is talking about, writing about or making suicidal gestures you should seek professional help immediately.
What To Do If You Think Your Teenager is Depressed:
As is stated in the beginning of this article, depression is usually very treatable and is usually treated through talk therapy, medication or a combination of the two. If you suspect your teenager may be depressed, you should try to talk to them about it in a very nurturing and non-judgmental way and let them know you are there to support them. It can be very powerful to validate their feelings and to just listen without trying to educate or lecture them. They may know something is not right but not really understand what is going on inside them which can feel very scary and isolating. Hopefully, you teenager will feel a sense of relief that they are able to talk about what they are experiencing, however, if they continue to deny that anything is wrong – don’t take their word for it. It may be too scary or embarrassing for your teen to admit something is really wrong, however, as the parent you know your child and should trust your instincts. It is best to get a professional opinion if you are truly feeling like something is wrong.
Your teen’s primary care doctor is qualified to do a depression screening and to rule out any other medical problems which may be causing the symptoms which are present. If there is no medical cause, your doctor can refer you to a mental health specialist who can help you and your teen address the depression.
Talk therapy (counseling) with a licensed therapist or psychologist can be very important in helping individuals understand why they are depressed and in developing strategies for managing depressive feelings. I have worked with many, many teenagers who are able to fully manage their symptoms of depression through talk therapy alone. Depending on the circumstances of the depression, there can be noticeable results very quickly for both the teen and for those around them. It is important that teens find a therapist whom they can connect with and open up to. It is completely acceptable and appropriate for teens and parents to screen or interview a potential therapist to determine if the individual will be a good fit.
Medication (antidepressants) can also be effective for some individuals who are depressed. The use of medication assists the brain in releasing chemicals which elevate an individual’s overall mood. Parents looking for a medication consultation for their teenager should consider locating a child / adolescent psychiatrist since the use of medications for children and adolescents can be quite different from the use for adults. As with all medications, there are risks and side effects when using antidepressants with teenagers so parents should ask about these when making any decisions about medication for their teen. Remember, your and your teenager will ultimately make the decision whether medication will be used to help treat the depression so a consultation does not commit you to anything! Unless there are serious safety issues at play – I generally advise starting with therapy which is often times all that is required in the treatment of depression.
Encouraging exercise and social activity is also very helpful for teens who are experiencing depression. Many teens find art, journaling and yoga in addition to traditional sports helpful when feeling depressed. I cannot stress enough how much any form of physical activity can be in the treatment of depression.
Parents who are dealing with a depressed child may feel very overwhelmed themselves as this can be a scary and uncertain time. It is important that parents take care of themselves and tend to their own needs despite the significant needs of their teen. Parents need their own support during this time if feeling overwhelmed whether this is the support of a friend or family member, a life coach or their own therapist. In addition, most parents find it helpful to educate themselves about what is going on for their child. This can be done through the internet, talking to a doctor or to their teen’s therapist, or through reading a book or two about depression. It is also important for parents to not blame themselves or each other for their teenager’s depression (even if this is something that runs in their families which is often the case with depression). Depression can be caused by many factors so it is unlikely that any one person or thing has caused the situation. Remember, the good news is that most teens are able to feel better with professional support as well as with parental support and learning about depression is the first step towards getting your teen the help they may need.
If you are the parent of a teenager looking for additional support, go to How To Parent A Teen to see all of our coaching programs and products and to download your FREE Audio program titled: 3 Powerful Strategies For Parents Of Teenagers.