According to statistics, in every U.S. high school classroom of roughly 30 students, at least a few of them will be dealing with depression at any given time. In fact, roughly 20 percent of them will experience depression before they reach adulthood. Today, teen depression isn’t just a problem that affects someone else’s child. It’s all around us. It may be in your own home. It was in mine.
From the ages of 12 to 17, I found myself stuck in an emotional fog. Constant feelings of sadness, insecurity, and confusion caused me to feel helpless and act out. My parents made the mistake that many often do. They assumed it was just adolescent growing pains. While my behavior was frustrating for them, they thought I would eventually outgrow it.
But this often isn’t the case, so signs that a teenager might be depressed should never be taken lightly. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, treating teen depression in its earliest stages can significantly reduce substance abuse and suicide risks, as well as help teens develop into healthy adults down the road.
How Do I Know?
Common depression symptoms like anger, irritability, and long-lasting unhappiness can be normalized or downplayed, especially when we don’t want to admit that it’s something more serious. Dr. Moira Rynn, a child psychiatrist and associate professor at Columbia University, says, “No one wants to see their child as depressed, and most parents just want to believe it is the moodiness of adolescence. While teens can get stressed by things, it shouldn’t lead to this feeling of not being able to deal with life, and people often get that confused.”
If you’re concerned with your child’s recent behavior, take into account how long you’ve noticed it, how extreme it is, and how different he’s been from his usual self.
Other Warning Signs of Teen Depression
- Trouble with school and concentration: depressed teens often find it difficult to concentrate on schoolwork or stay interested in hobbies they once enjoyed. A formerly good student may get in trouble, skip classes, or let her grades slip.
- Isolation or change in relationships: most depressed teens will begin to spend more time alone, but complete isolation isn’t the only possibility. It’s also common for them to begin to keep fewer friendships (instead of none), change types of friends, and pull away from their family.
- Unexplained illnesses: I spent years in numerous doctors’ offices and hospitals with terrible stomach pains and no diagnosis. The pain was very real; nothing angered me more than hearing specialists label it as “stress induced.” I now realize that emotional turmoil can wreak extreme physical havoc on the body. That’s why depressed teens often suffer from things like headaches, stomachaches, and menstrual pain. When a physical exam doesn’t reveal a medical problem, don’t overlook the possibility that their body might be crying for help when they can’t (or don’t want to).
- Extreme habit changes: substance abuse is an obvious sign that your teen needs help and may be self medicating. However, teens often show their depression with dramatic changes in everyday activities as well, and no one is more equipped to notice these than you. They might sleep all day or not at all, eat excessively or stop eating entirely, or spend endless hours watching TV and playing on the Internet. These may seem like innocent lifestyle changes. But when they’re drastic, they can also signal something much larger at work.
How Can You Help?
Let’s be honest: teenagers usually spend most of their time with people other than their parents. They’re at school and with friends much more often than with you. Still, don’t let this make you feel that you can’t make an impact. It’s often those few hours with the people who love them most that can make all the difference.
- Treat the problem, not the symptom: for a depressed teen, being disrespectful and acting out are symptoms of the emotional imbalance at the root, so they’re extra sensitive to their parents’ reactions. When my own parents would respond with harsh groundings, expressions of disappointment, and aggravation, it often made me feel like a bigger failure and more depressed. While you should never condone bad behavior, try to remember it’s only telling part of the story. Therefore, do your best to be fair and patient with discipline.
- Communicate without judgment: your teen needs someone she trusts now more than ever. Most depressed teens feel completely alone and are embarrassed by what they’re feeling, so build them up and let them know you’re there. Oftentimes, even when I wanted to talk to my parents, I didn’t. I was never quite sure how to explain what I felt and was always worried about what they’d say. Your child may be resistant, but encourage him to talk to you. If he’s willing to talk, try your best to listen with an understanding ear.
- Encourage the positive: studies have shown that exercise and healthful eating are useful tools in managing stress and combating depression. Persuade your teen to socialize with quality friends, play sports, and join clubs—anything that will keep her busy and provide an identity. Attempt to do things together as a family. Even though she may be pushing you away, spending time together can be meaningful even when it doesn’t seem that way. Last, I found journal writing to be extremely therapeutic. It gave me a place where I could sort through my feelings without worrying about being judged, and then attempt to leave them on the page.
- Seek professional treatment: a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that almost 70 percent of depressed teens don’t seek treatment. Even in my darkest moments, I found the idea of seeking outside help to be suffocating. I was already self-conscious; all I wanted was to get better on my own. Parents frequently share this same mentality and hope for various reasons that professional attention won’t be necessary. “Teen depression is very treatable but parents are often frightened to deal with it, and this can contribute to delays in seeking treatment,” Columbia’s Dr. Rynn says. While a strong family support system is always important, consult a medical or mental health practitioner if symptoms last longer than two weeks. It may be anyone from a pediatrician or school counselor to a psychiatrist—most important is finding someone qualified whom your teen can trust and be open with about his feelings.
Ultimately, I emerged from those difficult years with an awareness that adolescent depression is as hard on the parents as it is on the teen. It can be a confusing and frustrating time for all involved, but it’s important to recognize that how you respond can make all the difference for your child’s health in both the short and long term. No parents ever want to be in a position where their child is suffering and they don’t know how to make it better. Keep yourself educated on the facts. It may help ensure that your struggling teen gets the care and treatment she needs.
Sites & Sources
- New Jersey Mental Health Cares: New Jersey’s mental health information service can help connect you to screening centers, doctors, and support groups; 866-202-HELP.
- 2nd Floor: a confidential and anonymous helpline for New Jersey’s youth to talk about anything from bullying and addiction to dating and sexuality; 888-222-2228.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: suicide prevention hotline that provides free, 24-hour assistance if you need to call on behalf of someone you care about; 800-273-TALK (8255).
- teenscreen.org, a resource for current information on teen mental health, published under the auspices of the National Center for Mental Health Checkups at Columbia University.
- National Institute of Mental Health.
Kimberly Moscatello is a freelance writer and investment analyst in New Jersey. After suffering from depression in her teens, she’s inspired to share her experiences and offer insight.