Your teen has been much more quiet and withdrawn lately. They aren’t very talkative, are easily agitated and their mood has consistently been down. The big question in your mind is, “Is my teen depressed?”
The teen years are filled with highs and lows, so much so that it often feels like being on a roller coaster ride in the dark with lots of twists and turns, none of which you see coming. In a word, these years can be full of turbulence.
With all of the change going on, it is sometimes hard for parents to know if their teen is just going through a rough patch or if something bigger is going on like depression.
Approximately 1 in 5 teens from all walks of life will experience depression at some point during their teen years, which can be very scary for parents. In many instances teens themselves don’t understand what is going on, why they feel the way they do or even how to talk about what they are experiencing.
According to the Mayo Clinic, signs and symptoms of teen depression include:
- Feelings of sadness, which can include crying spells for no apparent reason
- Frustration or feelings of anger, even over small matters
- Feeling hopeless or empty
- Irritable or annoyed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
- Loss of interest in, or conflict with, family and friends
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Fixation on past failures or exaggerated self-blame or self-criticism
- Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure, and the need for excessive reassurance
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Ongoing sense that life and the future are grim and bleak
- Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
- Tiredness and loss of energy
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Changes in appetite—decreased appetite and weight loss, or increased cravings for food and weight gain
- Use of alcohol or drugs
- Agitation or restlessness—for example, pacing, hand-wringing or an inability to sit still
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Frequent complaints of unexplained body aches and headaches, which may include frequent visits to the school nurse
- Social isolation
- Poor school performance or frequent absences from school
- Less attention to personal hygiene or appearance
- Angry outbursts, disruptive or risky behavior, or other acting-out behaviors
- Self-harm—for example, cutting, burning, or excessive piercing or tattooing
- Making a suicide plan or a suicide attempt
When a teen is depressed, they can’t “just snap out of it.” But, there are things parents can do to help kids decipher their feelings and determine the best next steps. If a significant number of symptoms are present for two weeks, this is a good indication that it is time to reach out for help from a professional.
Things You Can Do If You Believe Your Teen Might Be Struggling With Depression
It may help to open the door to constructive conversation and let them know that if they are struggling with this, they can share with you.
Avoid lecturing, as in, “If you would just…” It may be hard because they can be moody, but seek to be present and listen to what is going on in their world if they are willing to share with you. If they tell you how bad things are, avoid making statements like, “I think you are blowing things out of proportion” or “It really isn’t that bad.” Remember that perception is everything and even though you may feel like their perception is not accurate, this is their reality and understanding this is the starting point for being able to help them.
One other thing that might be helpful here—sometimes teens find it easier to talk about something difficult when they are doing something. Shooting hoops, running, taking a hike, doing yard work, cooking or anything that doesn’t make them have direct eye contact with you and gives them something to do with their hands while they are trying to share with you works.
Encourage exercise, eating right, getting enough rest and being outdoors.
All of these things help to combat depression.
Acknowledge their feelings.
You don’t have to agree with them, but you do need to acknowledge them. When a teen is depressed they often feel like they are trying to slog through mud and fog. It’s hard to pinpoint feelings because everything feels “blah.” When they are able to pinpoint an emotion, validate it and work to keep the conversation going.
Avoid telling them what to do to “fix” the situation they are in.
Instead, ask them what they think they need to do. If they ask you for your thoughts, that’s the time to give some input. However, don’t give not too much because they can become overwhelmed quickly.
Work to help them avoid isolation and increase face time.
This is especially hard with COVID-19 factors at play. Be intentional about creating family time and encourage (don’t force) them to participate. Exercise with them. Look for activities they enjoy and do those things with them.
Limit screen time.
Many parents are tired of trying to take on this battle, but there is plenty of research indicating that lots of screen time can lead to depression. A recent study suggests that greater screen time—whether in the form of computers, cell phones, or tablets—may have contributed to a spike in depression and suicide-related behaviors and thoughts among American teens, particularly girls, between 2010 and 2015. Several studies show that when teens reluctantly agreed to give up screens for a week, they confessed at the end that they felt so much better without them.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help.
As the parent, it is important to trust your gut if you feel your teen is depressed. If you don’t feel like anything you are doing is helping, seek assistance. You can go see someone or find someone for your teen to talk to. Having a depressed teen does not reflect poorly on you and your parenting skills. Adolescence is terribly complicated. Quarantine, COVID-19, no school, no summer camps or other activities has made it very hard on teens who are typically super social in nature.
Dealing with depression in your teen can be exhausting on multiple levels. Not only are you interacting with your teen and questioning whether or not you are doing the right thing, but thoughts about what you are experiencing can consume every moment of your day and sometimes the night. Walking this road can feel isolating and lonely, so it is important to surround yourself with supportive people, seek help for yourself, educate yourself and take time away to regroup.