Recognizing And Addressing Depression In Your Teen

Posted on October 9th, 2015


Teenage years can be difficult as young people face issues such as academic pressure, conflict with peers, romantic relationships, and just trying to fit in. You may notice your teen struggling with these concerns, which might cause her to seem moody, grouchy, or difficult to deal with.

Depression, however, is much more than moodiness or occasional sadness: depression is a medical diagnosis. Just like other medical issues, depression is not something we choose.  If teens experience depression it is not their fault, and it may not be simple to identify the cause. Unfortunately, teen depression is more common than we might think.

Many parents want to know why their teen is depressed and may even blame themselves. However, the causes of depression can be a complex combination of brain chemistry, genetics, environmental factors, and stressful events. Your teen may not be able to verbalize why he is feeling the way he does. However, identifying the cause of the depression may not be as important as figuring out how to deal with it.

Managing teen depression can feel like a very scary, daunting task for parents, but the first step is to recognize the symptoms.

Know What To Look For Teens that are depressed may experience the following:

  • irritability
  • lack of motivation or interest in activities
  • isolation from family and friends
  • a drop in grades
  • difficulty concentrating
  • tearfulness
  • fatigue or lack of energy
  • difficulty sleeping
  • change in appetite
  • thoughts of suicide or wanting to die
  • frequent use of drugs or alcohol
  • self-injurious behavior such as cutting or burning

Depression in teens can look very different than it does in adults. Often times, parents think their teen is simply acting out by choosing to be argumentative, defiant, or lazy. In many cases, parents discover that their teen is depressed when the parents become aware of other problems, such as poor grades or substance abuse.

It may be difficult to decide if the symptoms listed above are a sign of depression, or just part of normal changes experienced by teens. One way to make this distinction is by asking yourself, “Are the symptoms they are experiencing significantly impacting their life and causing impairment in their relationships, their performance in school, or other extra-curricular activities?” If the answer is “yes”, it’s important to take their condition seriously. Do not ignore it. Many parents may be in disbelief that their teen is depressed because their teen still smiles, laughs, and seems “normal” at times. Sometimes it is tempting to find evidence that everything is “fine” because it’s difficult to accept that your teen may be in pain. However, depression typically does not go away on its own, and it can get progressively worse if untreated.

Communicating With Your Teen

In order to get your teen help, the most important step is communicating with her about the feelings she is having. For many families or communities, mental health issues can be a taboo topic that is avoided due to discomfort or shame. If your teen is indeed depressed, she needs to know that this is not something she should try to hide from you.

You may need to be the one to open the lines of communication by asking your teen about depression directly. Approach the conversation confidently to show your teen that you are strong enough to handle this and can help him or her get through it. Many times, teens will say they chose to hide their depression from their parents because they did not want to hurt them, or they did not believe their parents would be able to deal with it.

Coping with your teen’s depression can bring up many emotions for you, such as fear, sadness, guilt, or even anger and frustration. It’s normal for parents to need their own support to get through this. You might choose to confide in other adults, or to seek your own therapy. Nonetheless, do your best to show your teen a brave face when discussing his depression so he does not feel the need to hide things in order to spare your feelings.

During a conversation about depression, attempt to be as non-judgmental as possible. Posing questions such as, “You have everything you need, why are you depressed?” or “Can’t you just be happy and get over it?” will invalidate her feelings and alienate her. Do your best to just listen; this is often enormously helpful for teens and can be a turning point in which they decide it is OK to ask for help. These conversations may not go perfectly, and that is okay; the most important thing is that you are beginning a dialogue that validates their feelings and experiences. Be prepared for teens to resist discussing the topic or to even deny that anything is wrong; teens themselves may not recognize that they feel depressed. If your teen is not able to communicate with you about your concerns, trust your gut and speak with a professional about what you’ve observed. A professional will be able to provide some insight and guidance.

Seeking Help

Parents can seek treatment for their teens by making an appointment with a primary care physician first. Express your concerns to the doctor and request that they rule out any medical conditions that could be causing the symptoms. Once that’s been done, you can request a referral to a therapist and/or psychiatrist who can work with your teen. Be sure to ask for a provider that specializes in adolescents, as this specialty requires specific knowledge and skills. If you are unable to acquire a referral from your teen’s primary care physician, you can ask your insurance company for a list of providers. Start this process as soon as possible as it can take some time.

The good news is that depression is one of the most treatable mental health issues. Many teens respond well to therapy or a combination of therapy and medication. It is important to know that not every kind of treatment is a perfect match to every teen; everyone is unique and will respond differently to therapy and different types of medication. It is vital that you check in with your teen to assess how he is feeling and whether he thinks his therapist is a good match. It can take several attempts to find the right therapist or to establish the right dosage and combination of medication. During this time, you will need to know how treatment is going. Any concerns must be openly communicated to the treatment providers so that appropriate adjustments can be made.

Your teen can be happy and healthy if you are able to properly recognize and address the signs of depression.

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LOS GATOS TEEN THERAPY CAN HELP! Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.