The teen years can be difficult for both kids and parents alike. Hormones are changing, relationships with friends and parents are evolving, and access to communication and information via smartphones and multiple social media platforms is beyond what it has ever been. As parents, we often want to guard their hearts and minds while allowing them the independence to make wise decisions and to learn and grow. Teens can be moody and defiant at times as a result of all of these factors.
However, there’s a difference between occasional moodiness or defiance, and true depression. 12.5% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17 suffers from Major Depression, and roughly 20% of teens will have symptoms of depression at some point before reaching adulthood. Those are some pretty big statistics, which become even more eye-opening when you consider that depressed teens are at higher risk of committing suicide than adults who suffer from depression.
So how can you recognize when your teen is depressed?
These are signs and symptoms to look for in your teens. Just because they have one or two of these does not mean they are depressed, but do know that the more of these symptoms they exhibit, the higher the chances that they are suffering from depression.
Anger or Irritability
You might think sadness is a big sign to look for, and in some cases it is. But teens are more likely than adults not to exhibit the typical sadness associated with depression. Instead, they may be overly irritable, angry, hostile, easily frustrated, or easily upset by everyday situations. This might not just be at home. Watch for fights at school or mouthing off to teachers.
Your teen may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or might be sleeping way more than usual. Since teens often won’t tell you they can’t sleep, and you may not know (because you’re asleep yourself), you probably need to ask about this every so often.
Withdrawing from others is typical, though teens tend to maintain some friendships through depression, so don’t let the fact that they still have friends fool you. They may also start hanging out with different crowds. Watch in particular for withdrawal from wanting to interact with you as parents. Though drug or alcohol abuse do not have to be present in depression, significant changes in social interaction should raise flags for drug or alcohol use.
Pains and Discomforts
Somatic expression of depressive symptoms is common in teens. That chronic headache or abdominal pain (once cleared medically for other causes) may be related to their depression.
Feelings of Worthlessness
In adults, feelings of guilt are a common symptom of depression. In teens, this might manifest as feelings of worthlessness and fear of rejection. When this is the case, the teen might be overly sensitive to even the slightest criticism or be extremely hard on him/herself. This is especially true for the overachievers.
When your teen is dragging around all the time, not even able to muster the energy for things they love to do, that’s a red flag.
Not Enjoying their Favorite Activities
Speaking of things they love to do, watch for your teen not finding enjoyment in things that he/she used to love doing. They may even want to stop doing these things altogether, like the champion soccer player who suddenly wants to quit soccer, or the choir leader who wants to stop singing.
Sudden Drop in Grades
This could be due to multiple reasons. Depression causes trouble concentrating, which could make school work harder to do. Apathy is common with depression, so kids may just not care about school or grades. Or maybe they are hanging out with a new crowd, maybe missing classes or experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Whatever the cause, a sudden change in grades is a red flag to be explored.
Dramatic Shifts in Weight or Eating Habits
Depression can lead to poor appetite (weight loss) or emotional eating (weight gain) or even be associated with eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia, or Binge Eating Disorder. Because teens often hide in their clothes or eat at different times than you do, you might not notice this is happening. Prioritizing time to sit down together to eat dinner is one way to keep an eye on any changes in their eating habits.
What to do if you have concerns:
Talk to your teen. In a loving, nonjudgmental way, let him/her know you are concerned. If there is an isolated symptom like grades dropping or withdrawing from loved activities, maybe there’s a valid explanation. After talking it out, schedule an appointment with your child’s healthcare provider for an evaluation. Certain medical problems need to be ruled out such as thyroid disease and hormonal imbalances. At CentreSpringMD, we take an integrative approach to this evaluation, including exploring nutritional imbalances and the gut-brain connection. Then a treatment plan can be initiated to help your teen start to feel better. Part of this treatment plan for any teen with depression should include regular therapy.
Finally, if you have concerns that your teen may be suicidal, do not hesitate to have them evaluated emergently by a psychiatrist or in a reputable emergency department. The first priority is to make sure your child is safe.