According to the World Health Organization, depression is the fourth leading cause of illness and disability in teenagers aged 15-19 worldwide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15- to 19-year-olds. That's why it’s imperative to address mental health issues early on, before risky behaviors start taking place.
Every teen experiences varying levels of difficulty in mastering their inner world. Especially as your teen is trying to balance a series of physical, emotional, and social changes, it's important to keep an eye out for red flags for teen depression.
Ages 13 through 19 present an especially vulnerable period for your teenager. For many individuals, adolescence is a period that marks the emergence of mental health issues.
As children move through adolescence and teenhood and begin to differentiate their own identities from their parents’, they must learn how to protect themselves from exposure to traumatic experiences like bullying, harmful substances, and sexual assault.
And yet, depression in teenagers isn’t always easy to recognize. It's not unusual for young people to experience "the blues" or feel "down in the dumps" occasionally.
This article will help you answer the following questions:
- How do you know the difference between mood swings versus depression?
- And if you do suspect that your teen is dealing with depression, how can you reach out when they say they just want to be left alone?
How can you tell if a teenager has depression?
It's easy to write off the symptoms of depression in teenagers as moodiness. Puberty is marked by hormones gone haywire, which cause anyone to experience mood swings. Moreover, adolescents and teens are in that age bracket during which they need more privacy and space to discover themselves and build their identity. It’s not easy for a parent to discern when their child is withdrawing and isolating due to depression, or when they are just taking normal time out for themselves.
A lot of the symptoms of depression can be unassuming. By themselves, these aren’t immediate red flags, but should alert you to monitor your teen a little more closely:
- Worsening school performance.
- High sensitivity to criticism.
- Body aches and pains, or headaches and migraines, for no apparent reason.
- Excessive time on the Internet, computer, or gaming.
While changes in appetite, weight, concentration, and sleeping habits aren’t obvious indicators of depression, keep an eye out for a combination of other symptoms, such as:
- A decrease in interest in activities that they used to enjoy.
- Appearing sad, irritable, or tearful.
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness.
- Stating that nothing is fun or pleasurable anymore.
- Withdrawing from friends or after-school activities.
Finally, these are your biggest, most obvious warning signs of depression:
- Changes in appetite or weight.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Changes in sleeping habits.
- Engaging in risky behavior, like recklessness, drinking, and unsafe sex.
- A lack of energy, or having difficulty doing simple tasks.
- Self-harm like cutting or burning.
- Talking about or joking about suicide.
If you notice one or a combination of these symptoms, sit down for a serious conversation with your teenager.
Here’s a helpful framework to discover what your teen might be going through.
Tips for Communicating With Your Teen
Understand the causal factors, warning signs, and risk factors for depression.
Start the conversation
Let them know that you’ve seen a change in them, like a drop in grades, changes in their eating habits, or isolation from friends.
It’s important that your teen knows that they can talk to you about anything. Be open, but don’t be intrusive. Practice tactful persistence, but avoid invading their privacy.
If you’ve been through depression yourself, it can be helpful to share your experiences with your teen. It can help your teen feel less alone or broken.
Ask open-ended questions
Try to stay neutral and open-minded. Listen, validate their feelings, and take them seriously.
How has life been lately? Is there anything I should know about?
Do you want to talk about it? I’m here when you’re ready.
That sounds like it’s really hard. How are you coping?
What can I do to help today?
Provide support and encouragement
For milder cases of depression, it can be enough to offer support and a reliably positive presence.
For more severe cases of depression, encourage your teen to visit a licensed health professional who can diagnose your teen and make age- and situation-specific recommendations.
What causes depression in teenagers?
There is no one cause for depression in teenagers or adults. Many things can influence depression, including:
- Low self-esteem or a lack of confidence
- Isolation and loneliness
- Negative thinking patterns (which anyone can learn early in childhood)
- Unhealthy habits (such as a sedentary lifestyle paired with a junk food diet)
- Traumatic experiences
- A genetic disposition for depression
To understand it further, let’s compare depression to another kind of illness, like cancer or diabetes. Someone might be born with a genetic disposition to one disease or another. However, this disposition doesn’t mean they will necessarily develop the disease in their life. Lifestyle and environmental factors, such as diet, air pollution, exercise, and smoking habits, will play a significant role in whether they develop the disease.
Similarly, some individuals are genetically predisposed to develop depression. Many people with depression tend to blame and isolate themselves, which simply worsens depression. Unfortunately, depression is one of the most misunderstood mental health conditions today. Because many of us don't have a good grasp of the causal factors and symptoms of depression, individuals with depression suffer from social stigma and lack the necessary support—making them feel even more alone.
Some parents grow frustrated and assume their depressed children are spoiled or lazy, and expect that they can “snap out” of their depression if they really wanted to. Of course, if it were that simple, everyone would do it.
However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to do. There are many treatments for depression, and it’s just a matter of finding the right ones.
What to do if you suspect that you or your teenager has depression
First, let’s talk about what not to do. Many parents react with fear and anger when they see that their child is withdrawing from them, engaging in risky activities like underage drinking, or failing classes. When a parent catches a teenager skipping class, it’s normal to react by taking away the teen’s phone or limiting their after-school activities.
While this reaction is understandable, unfortunately, it tends to have the opposite effect. Instead of reacting to the punishments by “falling in line,” the teenager feels even more misunderstood. They get angry and pull away even more.
Instead, reach out to your teenager to try and provide support. Listen with a non-judgmental ear and be open-minded about what kind of support your teen needs. If a teenager is skipping school, this is a cry for help. Practice patience. Put yourself in their shoes, understand the difficulty of dealing with teenagehood, and sit down with your teen to try and figure out what the reason is.
If you suspect that your teenager has depression, it’s worth getting a physical checkup, including a blood test. For instance, vitamin deficiencies can manifest in symptoms like fatigue, which can look like depression. For instance, B12 deficiency can mimic many symptoms of depression. If your teen is a vegan or vegetarian and doesn’t take B12 supplements, they may be at higher risk for B12 deficiency because B12 typically isn’t found in plant-based food.
Seeing a psychologist can also help determine whether your teen is experiencing depression. Whether or not there’s an actual diagnosis of depression, talking about problems in a therapy setting can help to ease the pain. A good psychologist will teach you and your teen new skills that can help them deal with depression, such as emotional awareness, emotional regulation, and social skills. If needed, a psychologist will refer you to a psychiatrist that can prescribe medication if they (and you) feel that it is the right solution. Whether or not you choose the medication route, it’s recommended to continue therapy.
Individual therapy for parents and family therapy can also help parents learn how to support their teenager. While many adults are unsure about the benefits of therapy, it’s worth at least a few sessions. At the minimum, you’ll learn how to improve your communication styles and resolve conflicts in a healthier way. Everyone benefits from a better-functioning home environment.
Self-help books can be an inexpensive yet invaluable tool for teens. Try a few books from this list to help your teen understand their own feelings more clearly:
- Am I Depressed And What Can I Do About It? by Shirley Reynolds and Monika Parkinson. This book is a CBT self-help guide for teenagers experiencing low mood and depression. It adopts a narrative approach with graphic elements, incorporating case studies and some interactive exercises.
- There Is Nothing Wrong With You - for Teens by Cheri Huber. In this book, Huber helps readers challenge the false assumptions that we hold about our personas that cause us suffering and pain.
- I would, but my DAMN MIND won't let me!: a teen's guide to controlling their thoughts and feelings by Jacqui Letran. Letran encourages readers to challenge old negative beliefs and create positive new thought patterns. She teaches a simple, quick and easy path to a happier, healthier life.
Work with your teen on building healthier habits and coping strategies together. The last thing they need is to feel alone, especially when they’re going through a rough time. Though they might not admit it, you are a role model and hugely influential figure in their lives.
Remember that your teenager is quickly approaching adulthood. They need time, space, and respect. It might take a while to find the treatment or approach that works best, so don’t give up.