Talking to your teen about depression can be a difficult and intimidating task. The adolescent and teenage years are some of the most difficult, due to the immense amount of changes going on in both the brain and the body. These changes affect how teens think, learn, interact, and behave, and contribute to emotional ups and downs, and contribute to emotional ups and downs. These emotional ups and downs are considered “normal” in teens, but if your teen has been struggling emotionally for a long period of time and it seems to be affecting their daily life, there might be something more serious going on. In this article we will
What is Depression?
Depression (also called Major Depressive Disorder) is a mental health disorder that interferes with daily activities, such as eating, sleeping, or school/work. Depression can occur at any age, but often symptoms begin in the adolescent and teenage years. Depression can co-occur with other mental disorders or substance abuse.
Teens and Depression
Research from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association has shown a 63% rise in depression diagnoses amongst adolescents and teens (ages 12 – 17) since 2013. Teen depression tends to peak around 16-years-old.
8% of American teens will attempt suicide each year, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24 years old.
Depression Warning Signs
If you think your teen may be suffering from depression, there are certain signs or indicators to look out for. It is important to not only be aware of the signs of depression in general, but also the signs of depression in teenagers specifically (as they tend to look a bit different).
General Warning Signs
- Mood changes – increased sadness or irritability
- Feeling hopeless
- Tearfulness or crying
- Isolation (withdrawal from social and family relationships)
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Changes in sleep patterns – sleeping more or less and/or changes in waking times (i.e. – waking up in the middle of the night)
- Changes in appetite and eating habits (and as a result, weight changes)
- Decrease or total lack of enthusiasm and motivation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of guilt, shame, and/or worthlessness
- Increased fatigue
- Suicidal thoughts
Warning Signs in Teens
There is no one identifiable explanation as to why depression rates are so high amongst teenagers, but many studies point to factors such as social media use, a lack of coping skills, and academic and social pressure.
- Increase in negativity and/or cranky, irritable, or angry moods; easily frustrated or prone to anger outbursts. Teens struggling with depression tend to demonstrate irritability/crankiness, more than sadness.
- Highly sensitive to criticism. Teens with depression often experience feelings of worthlessness, and thus become extremely sensitive to failure, rejection or criticism. Teenagers who are overachievers tend to be especially susceptible to this sensitivity.
- Aches and pains (such as headaches or stomachaches), with no identifiable medical explanation.
- Difficulty at school. Problems with concentration and having low energy can lead to attendance problems, a drop in grades, and/or frustration with schoolwork. This is even common in teenagers who were previously good students.
- Withdrawal from relationships. Teens with depression may withdraw from some, but not all, of their relationships. While depressed adults commonly pull away from relationships in general, teens tend to be more selective. They might pull away from some and sustain others, start mixing with a different peer group, or just pull away from parents.
- Substance use. Teenagers who are depressed frequently turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate, numb out, and/or deal with their emotional struggle.
- Low self-esteem that might play out as expressions of ugliness, shame, unworthiness and failure.
- Excessive time on the Internet, computer, or gaming.
- Engaging in risky behavior. This may show up in a variety of ways – recklessness, drinking, unsafe sex.
What Causes Depression?
The exact cause of depression is unknown. And in most cases, depression is caused by a combination of things – some associated with the chemicals in the brain and some that have to do with environment and life events. Additionally, some cases of depression emerge as a result of certain medical conditions or chronic health issues.
Factors that may increase a teenager’s likelihood of developing depression include:
- Genetics: If you or other family members suffer from depression (or have in the past), your teen has a higher chance of being diagnosed with depression.
- Family problems: A teen’s chances of struggling from depression are increased if there is ongoing familial conflict, or a major loss occurs within the family (such as a death).
- Low self-esteem: Low self-esteem and/or a lack of confidence is a common struggle for many teens and adolescents, and is also, unfortunately, a strong predictor of one experiencing depression
- Loneliness: Many youth experience loneliness, as a result of feeling like an outsider, or being ostracized by their peers. Additionally, adolescents and teenagers often go through phases of being more disconnected from their parents. This isolation can frequently result in loneliness, and sometimes, depression.
- Medical Problems: There are numerous medical conditions that increase a teenager’s likelihood of suffering from depression. Thyroid disorders, anemia, diabetes, and chronic pain are some of the most common.
Research has shown these factors to be strongly correlated to an increased likelihood one will develop of depression. Yet, it is important to note teens can still develop depression, even if they have not experienced any of the above-mentioned factors.
How To Talk About Depression With Your Teen
With the number of youth struggling with depression today, it is likely your teenager has been affected in some way, whether personally, or through a friend or peer. Thus, it is vital to start the conversation about depression (and mental health in general), with your teen.
It is important to keep in mind where your teenager is developmentally, when thinking about discussing depression with them.
- Educate yourself – if you are thinking about talking about depression with your teen, it is imperative you learn about depression in general, and how depression affects teenagers. Know the risk factors and warning signs.
- Start the conversation – a straightforward way to start the conversation is by letting your child know what you have observed. For example, let them know you have noticed a drop in grades/mood changes/isolation from friends/etc.
- Be open – let your teen know you are there for them, no matter what. For a teen to open up, it is important they know they can tell you anything. Invite your teen to talk. Be available, but not intrusive, persistent but not invasive
- Normalize – if you have been affected by depression, it can be extremely helpful to share your personal experience with your teen. This is a great way to normalize what your teen is going through, and may even help them feel less alone.
- Ask clarifying questions – in order for you to be most effective in supporting your teen, it is vital you have as much information as possible as to how depression is affecting them specifically. (i.e. “how often are you feeling this way,
- Encourage treatment – talk to your child about teen depression treatment options, and provide them with resources. By doing this, you are essentially educating your teen about the options available to them, without being forceful. Remember, you cannot heal your teenager’s depression for them; for any treatment to be effective, they must want to get help and heal.
- Minimize – although you may not understand what your teenager is going through, it is crucial to validate their experience. This means being wary of any statements that might minimize their depression (i.e. “snap out of it” “cheer up”, etc.).
- Don’t judge – It is so important to remember depression is physiological, and not a personality or character deficiency. Your child did not choose to have depression. If you want your teen to be open and honest with you, it is necessary for you to create a trusting environment, which means steering clear of using judgmental language.
- Use words like “crazy” – words like crazy or stupid are unsupportive and contradictory to any efforts to support your child.
- Argue or blame – depression can sometimes contribute to increased anger in teens. It is not helpful to engage in arguments with your child or place blame on them for the depression. Again, your teenager did not choose to have depression, and likely they do not want to have depression.
Possible Questions to Ask Your Teen About Depression
- Do you often feel sad, anxious, or even “empty,” or “numb”?
- Do you feel hopeless or like everything is going wrong?
- Have you lost interest or pleasure in activities and hobbies that you used to enjoy?
- Do you feel like you’re worthless or helpless? Do you feel guilty about things?
- Do you feel more irritable or angry than you used to?
- Do you find yourself spending more time alone and withdrawing from relationships?
- Are your grades dropping?
- Have your eating or sleeping habits changed (eating or sleeping more than usual or less than usual)?
- Do you always feel tired? Do you have less energy than normal or no energy at all?
- Do you feel restless or have trouble sitting still?
- Do you feel like you have trouble concentrating, remembering information, or making decisions?
- Do you have unexplained aches or pains, headaches, or stomach problems?
- Do you ever think about dying or suicide? Have you ever tried to harm yourself? Do you have a plan for how you might kill yourself?
Other Things You Can Do
Discussing depression with your teenager is a vital part of helping them heal. Yet, the conversation is just the start. There are other things you can do to help your child on their journey to mental health.
- Schedule an assessment with a mental health professional.
- Seek your own support – having a child with depression can often feel overwhelming. Thus, it is vital parents seek their own support, whether through mental health professionals or close friends and family. By seeking your own support you are not only looking after your own mental health, but also ensuring you are providing the best possible support to your child.
- Break down the stigma – there are so many myths out there about depression and mental illness as a whole. People say hurtful and potentially damaging things about mental health all the time, which can impact those who suffer with mental illness, especially teens and adolescents. Through education and discussion, some of this stigma begins to fall away.
- Continue to observe your child – notice patterns of behavior at school, home, with friends, etc.
- Seek a more advanced treatment option (Residential Programs, Outpatient Programs and/or Group Therapy)
Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).