Recognizing Signs of Depression in Your Teen

How well do you remember being a teenager? Although we may like to think that we’re not too far removed from our teen years, in reality it’s probably been a while since you had to think like a teenager.  The teen years were complicated enough without adding in the pressures of social media and global pandemics. The everyday reality of life as a teen now is totally different than what you may remember.  Teens have a lot on their plates: school, jobs, extracurriculars, changing bodies, developing brains, decisions about their futures, and juggling a social life are all expected of them. No wonder they’re overwhelmed! We have this idea that teens are moody and unpredictable, but teenage depression is a separate issue from typical teen irritability.  

Research suggests that one in five teens will experience depression at some point in their teen years, but most of them will never get help. Talking about mental health issues is difficult. It requires vulnerability and trust. It’s scary to watch your child suffer, especially if they were able to keep it hidden for a while. Usually, parents have some inkling that something isn’t right, but we don’t want to overstep and alienate our teens. However, having the support and love of a caretaker can be immensely helpful in treating depression. Depression is a very treatable illness, but it can only be treated if someone seeks help for it. Sometimes teenagers feel like they can’t talk to anyone about how they’re feeling, which leads to keeping their feelings bottled up and going undiagnosed. 

Depression tends to show up differently in teens than it does in adults. As much as teens look like little adults, we need to remember that their brains are still developing, and they will respond to things differently than an adult would. We give teens so much to do that we can sometimes forget they’re still just children, growing up. Here are some of the ways that depression shows up in teens: 

  • Low self-esteem and confidence
  • Changes in school performance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Acting recklessly or engaging in dangerous behaviors
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • Running away from home
  • Excessive screen time
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection
  • Increase in self-criticism
  • Quick to anger
  • Restlessness
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Withdrawing from social circles
  • Changes in personal hygiene
  • Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping all the time, not sleeping enough)

So, how do you know if your teen is just experiencing run of the mill teenage moodiness or depression?  If they have more than one of the symptoms listed above, it may be time to check in with their primary care provider or start researching therapists. It’s also important to make time to talk with your teen, even if they don’t seem interested. It can be painful to try to reach out and be pushed away, but that’s natural for teens to do at this age, even when they aren’t depressed. They’re trying to figure out how to be independent and separate from the family, so try not to take it personally if your teen rebuffs you. Make it clear to them that your door is always open. It can help to talk about your own struggles with mental health if you’ve experienced any. This can make them feel less alone and less abnormal. 

This is also a good time to check on your language and communication around the home – do you find yourself making disparaging remarks about mental health in front of your kids? Try to be kind to yourself but also look critically at the messages you’re sending to your family. That can mean having to deal with your own feelings about mental illness and trying to lessen the stigma of mental illness in your own home. 

Depression is very treatable, but it doesn’t go away on its own. If you suspect that your teen is depressed, it’s important to do everything you can to get them help. Remember to tone down any judgment or criticism, even if the way your teen has been acting is bothering you. If they feel like they’re going to be judged or criticized, your teen will be less likely to come to you for help. Even if your teen doesn’t come to you for help, and you suspect they’re dealing with depression, you can make an appointment to see their primary care doctor. Therapy is another great option to help manage depression. If you’re interested in therapy support for your teen, our clinicians can help them learn new coping skills to manage their feelings. Get in touch today to book a session for your teen. 

-Brice N Sanner, LMFT