“I hated high school. I don’t trust anybody who looks back on the years from 14 to 18 with any enjoyment. If you liked being a teenager, there’s something wrong with you.” ― Stephen King
The teenage years are tumultuous to say the least. It can be easy to forget how miserable and self- doubting the teenage self can be, as a wave of drastic change and hormones sweeps over your developing mind and body. With this uncertainty comes a predictable amount of moodiness, fluctuations in confidence, and conflict with parents.
Sometimes however, these common teenage symptoms go beyond what is normal for this life stage. When depression manifests itself in teenagers it can often be attributed to hormones etc. when it is in fact a real and pervasive psychological problem. Conversely, some parents may mistake their teens natural growing-up stage for depression when it is completely harmless.
An Underestimated Problem
The important thing to note is that undetected depression in the early years can have lifelong consequences. The average age of depression onset in lifelong sufferers is 14 years old, so those that experience lifelong depressive episodes will most likely start as teens.
The Association for Young People’s Health report that the number of young people aged 15- 16 with depression has almost doubled between the 1980s and now. They also estimate that 1 in 10 young people suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. These are statistics that are replicable in most developed countries around the world.
Untreated depression in the early years can lead to eating disorders, academic difficulties, and substance abuse. There is no shame in seeking the help of mental health experts and, in fact, early positive experiences with these services can set your child up for a lifetime of positive mental health.
So how do you tell when your teenager is suffering from depression and needs a little help? Listed below are some common signs of teenage depression. Although many of these occur during the teenage years, the presence of most or all of them over the space of several weeks indicates your teen may have depression.
Please bear in mind that this list is not exhaustive, but merely a guide to identifying when your teen may have a problem. In order to be diagnosed the help of a trained mental health professional is required.
Signs to Look Out For
Mood: This is one of the hardest ones to disentangle, but if your child is consistently sad, cranky, and irritable then you may need to explore why this is so pervasive. This, combined with a belief that life is meaningless is a warning sign for depression.
Appetite: If your teen is eating a lot more or a lot less than usual and has experienced significant weight loss/ gain then this may be a depressive symptom. It is common for weight to fluctuate during adolescence but if this is combined with several of the other symptoms listed here then it may be a warning sign.
Loss of interest: Sometimes teens move away from things they used to enjoy as children. This is perfectly normal, but if your teen completely withdraws from things they truly love such as a particular sport, instrument or even friends then this is not to be ignored. A loss of interest in enjoyable pursuits is particularly worrying as the lack of activity and fun will only exacerbate any pre-existing depression.
Sleep: An excessive amount of sleep is not normal, nor are highly irregular sleeping patterns. Parents should look out for ongoing fatigue and/ or exhaustion.
Physical complaints: If your child regularly reports headaches, nausea and other without any seeming explanation or cause then this may be a sign of deeper issues.
School performance: A sudden worsening in school performance, frequent absences and seeming disinterest in school life may hint at depression.
Difficulty concentrating: Difficulty concentrating at home and at school should be taken note if. Your child may seem restless or agitated and be unable to relax.
Tearfulness: Teens who become easily tearful or cry frequently may be experiencing deeper unhappiness.
What to Do if You Think Your Child May Have Depression?
Again, this list should not be used to diagnose your child but should merely be used as a guide if you already have concerns. Most of these behaviours will be evident at some stage or another throughout the teenage years. If however, these behaviours are ongoing and pervasive then you should consider your options.
Parents of depressed teenagers should do their best to listen to their teenagers concerns. Try to schedule some time to really listen to how they are feeling. Do not judge or lecture as tempting as this can be. Statements such as “when I was a teen” or “you’ll grow out of it” are not helpful.
Structure and self- care are extremely important when it comes to alleviating depression. Encourage your child to get enough sleep and make sure they are getting the nutrients they need. Simple things like these can make a difference.
Whether as a teenager or an adult it is vital to talk through your depression. There are many mental health experts who are trained to work with depressed teens. Most schools have a counsellor or psychologist and there are a range of valuable community services.
Don’t feel as though “fixing” depression is your parenting duty. If you suspect that your teen is depressed, get in touch with these services and ensure that the correct support they need is obtained.
Sometimes the best example to set is that it is okay to ask for help!
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Machoian, L. (2006). The disappearing girl: Learning the language of teenage depression. Penguin.
Mental Health Foundation (2006). Truth hurts: report of the National Inquiry into self-harm among young people. London: Mental Health Foundation
Oster, G. D., & Montgomery, S. S. (1995). Helping your depressed teenager: A guide for parents and caregivers. John Wiley.