3 things parents need to know about adolescent depression

Picture this: Your teenage daughter says her day was “depressing.” Your son tells you he feels “so depressed” after failing a test. Talking in this way has become common, and our ideas about depression may originate from the many things we have heard in our culture or through our personal experiences. Your child may be simply describing normal, everyday mood swings; your child may be reacting to a hard challenge; or your child may be experiencing depression. Sometimes it is hard to know. While ups and downs are typical in adolescence, it can be difficult for parents to differentiate these concerns from something more significant, such as a depressive disorder.

We hope this blog is the beginning of an open and ongoing conversation (i.e. with your teen, a provider, within your support system) regarding your concerns, so you may address these concerns with greater understanding and an awareness of when to seek available resources.  

What are the signs that a pre-teen or teen is suffering from clinical depression?

Depression is usually more than feeling down once in a while, and perhaps one of the most important things for parents to be aware of is the fact that depression presents differently in childhood and adolescence than in adulthood. As a parent, it is important to talk with your child or teen when you notice a change in their mood or behavior, or if they are showing some of the following signs or symptoms: 

  • Irritability, anger or agitation (this sign is more typical for teens than adults). Sometimes this symptom is dismissed as “typical moodiness” rather than a sign of depression or deeper worries.
  • Withdrawal or isolation from others
  • Disturbance in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite
  • Decrease in interest of daily or previously enjoyed activities
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Expressions of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Having trouble in school or grades dropping
  • In more serious cases, teens may express thoughts of suicide or the desire or behavior of hurting themselves.

What causes depression and how is it treated?

Although a specific event may occur before the onset of depression, there is usually not one cause for depression. A variety of factors contribute to the onset of depression, including family history, medical conditions, stress, difficulties in relationships and grief. 

Meeting with a provider may help you to better understand how these symptoms developed over time and what may be the best means of addressing these concerns. Dependent on your child’s symptoms, more frequent therapy appointments may be recommended, or your provider may refer you to a psychiatrist to assess if medication may help address your child’s symptoms. 

Do’s and Don’ts for discussing concerns regarding depressive symptoms

Do: 

  • Make an appointment with a professional. Especially if symptoms are interfering with daily functioning and quality of life.
    • If a teen is experiencing even some, but not all, symptoms of depression, especially if he or she is thinking about suicide, it is important to have them seen by a professional (psychologist, licensed professional counselor, social worker or a psychiatrist). An evaluation with a mental health professional is needed to determine if your child is suffering from depression. 
  • Practice active and reflective listening.
    • Removing all distractions and having a calm discussion of your concerns with your teen is an important step to understanding your child and knowing if he or she is experiencing these feelings.
  • Be empathic and supportive.
    • Caregivers play a key role in supporting their child through empathic listening and helping coordinate support (i.e. helping to schedule a therapy visit). As a parent, you know and understand your child, and you may be the best resource for understanding the changes your teen is experiencing. 

Don’t: 

  • Dismiss or minimize your teen’s symptoms
    • Your teen may want to protect you from worry by “not bothering you” with his or her difficult feelings. Therefore, it is important to be fully present and encourage conversation.
  • Overreact to a teen’s symptoms of depression
    • It is natural for a parent or caregiver to feel nervous or anxious if a teen they care for is experiencing these feelings. However, it is important to stay calm in order to be attentive. 

As a parent or caregiver, seeing your child struggle with symptoms of depression can often leave you feeling scared, confused or helpless. The important thing is that you do not have to know the answers and it is not your responsibility to “fix” these symptoms. But, by taking the time to become more familiar with the signs and symptoms related to depression and learning to push past the potential discomfort of discussing these concerns, you can allow your child to begin this dialogue and help them find the support they may need. 

Post by:

Amy B. Acosta, PhD

As part of the interdisciplinary Adolescent Medicine team, I provide both individual and family therapy to our patients. My primary clinical focus includes working with adolescents with eating disorders and body image issues. I also work with patients who present with symptoms of depression,...

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Dr. Amy Acosta, PhD, psychologist in adolescent medicine and Dr. Krista Caldwell, PhD, psychology fellow in adolescent medicine