Depression in teens can take many forms, some of which we may not, at first glance, classify as symptoms of depression. Some of the symptoms are typical experiences teens go through, such as swift mood changes, increased need for sleep or irritability. On their own, these symptoms may simply be the stuff of adolescence, but when two or more of the following symptoms are present for a two-week period it may be time to pay closer attention to what your teen may be trying to tell you.

Symptoms of depression

  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Irritability, anger or hostility
  • Tearfulness or frequent crying
  • Withdrawal from friends and family 
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Lack of enthusiasm and motivation 
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide 

Depression is an illness that can affect anyone at any time, and is usually triggered by a painful event such as a relationship breakup, failure to make a sports team, bullying, betrayal by a friend, rejection by a favoured group, parental divorce etc. Any of these events may lead a teen into depression. If a teen is suffering with depression you may see some of the following changes in his/her behaviour: 

  • Problems at school – Depression can cause low energy and concentration difficulties. At school, this may lead to poor attendance, a drop in grades or frustration with schoolwork in a formerly good student.
  • Running away – Many depressed teens run away from home or talk about running away. Running away from home is usually a cry for help. 
  • Substance abuse – Teens may use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to cover up their depression. It is not uncommon for some teens to experiment with drugs and alcohol, but in this experimentation phase teens will often realize they don’t like the effects of drug and alcohol use and so they stop. If a teen is using drugs or alcohol to cover up and manage depression their use will continue despite negative consequences.
  • Low self-esteem – Depression can trigger and intensify feelings of ugliness, shame, failure and unworthiness which, in turn, aggravate depression.
  • Eating disorders – Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating are often signs of unrecognized depression. Usually found in girls, the number of boys developing eating disorders is on the rise. If you notice unusual changes in your teen’s eating behaviour it could indicate underlying depression. 
  • Internet, gaming addiction – Teens may go online to escape from their problems, but excessive computer use only increases their isolation and makes them more depressed.
  • Self injury – Cutting, burning and other kinds of self-mutilation are almost always associated with depression.
  • Reckless behaviour – Depressed teens may engage in dangerous or high-risk behaviours such as reckless driving, out-of-control drinking and unsafe sex.
  • Violence – Some depressed teens (usually boys who are the victims of bullying) become aggressive and violent. 
  • Suicide – Teens who are seriously depressed often think about, speak about or make "attention-getting" attempts at suicide. Always take any sign of suicidal behaviour or thinking seriously. Often it is the only way that a depressed teen can express the depth of their emotional pain. 

What to do if you suspect your teen is suffering from depression

  • Take it seriously. Don’t pretend it’s not there. Resist the temptation to think that it can’t happen to your teen or that it’s just "normal" teen growing pains.
  • Open the lines of communication. Learn to listen to your teen. DO NOT minimize their feelings, lecture, try to fix, give advice, recommend, correct or suggest. JUST LISTEN. Your teen needs your understanding. Try to put your own feelings aside and really listen to understand what your teen is going through. They need an ally. 
  • Seek professional help.
  • Find a professional counsellor for your teen to talk to.
  • Have your teen see a doctor to determine if depression is present. Anti-depressants plus therapy can go a long way in alleviating depression.

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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