Depression is a serious mental illness that affects people of any age, usually resulting in a loss of interest in activities and relationships and persistent feelings of sadness or irritability.
Teenage depression can be especially difficult to identify as it is sometimes mistaken for the bad moods and extreme emotions that are synonymous with the teenage years. However, you must recognize when your teen is suffering from depression and get them the help they need.
Teenage depression affects how your teen feels, thinks, and behaves. It can cause physical, functional, and emotional issues that negatively impact their life at school, in their social circles, and at home.
Find out how to help a teenager with depression and the symptoms you should look out for.
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If your teen acts out or experiences occasional bad moods, that’s to be expected. Depression, however, is different.
Depression in teenagers has many of the same symptoms as depression in adults, but there are several other factors at play. Brain development, social pressure, and sense of identity give depression in teenagers unique qualities.
Symptoms of teenage depression can vary in severity and include the following:
Pay attention to the emotional changes your teen may be experiencing, like:
Emptiness and hopelessness
Sadness and/or crying for no obvious reason
Feeling annoyed and irritable
Conflict with friends and family or a loss of interest in them
Losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed
Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
Trouble remembering things, making decisions, concentrating, or thinking
Pay attention to behavioral changes like:
Sleeping too much or too little
Loss of energy and tiredness
Eating too much or too little
Use of drugs or alcohol
Slow speech and body movements
Restlessness or agitation (hand-wringing, pacing, or the inability to sit still)
Self-harm (burning, cutting, or excessive tattooing or piercing)
Angry outbursts and disruptive behavior
Planning or attempting suicide
Depression in teenagers has increased in the US, particularly in teenage girls who are now nearly three times more likely¹ to experience depression than teenage boys.
According to research by the Pew Research Center¹, 13% of American teenagers aged between 12 and 17 said they had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year. In 2007, that figure was much lower at 8%.
Teenage depression isn't anyone's fault, but some factors can increase the risk of depression, including:
Some genes make teenagers more susceptible to depression. For instance, a family history of mood or anxiety disorders is a known risk factor.
Depression also occurs due to structural abnormalities or chemical imbalances in the brain. These changes are sometimes caused by a range of past experiences, including:
Physically or sexual abuse
Failure or humiliation
Or seemingly nothing at all
The changing balance of hormones that occurs during the teenage years may trigger or cause depression. This is especially true in relation to sex hormones (estrogen or testosterone) and thyroid hormones.
Learned negative thinking patterns
Teenage depression could be linked to learned negative thinking. An example of this would be when a teen learns to feel helpless in the face of challenges rather than able to cope with them.
Interactions and experiences with parents can also increase a teen’s chances of developing depression, especially when there has been insecure attachment and an authoritarian parenting style.
If a teenager is bullied by their peers, whether this is ongoing or in the past, it could create stress and anxiety while negatively impacting their self-esteem. This could trigger feelings of intense hopelessness and depressive episodes.
Other physical and mental conditions
Teenage depression is linked with numerous other mental health conditions, including:
Disabilities or disfigurements
These ailments may cause a teenager to feel frustrated and lack confidence when it comes to school life and socializing. Chronic illnesses and physical disabilities can also play a role.
Depression is a complicated condition with a variety of risk factors and causes. Ultimately, there is no single reason why a teen might develop depression, which can be difficult for parents to accept.
The type of help your teen needs depends on the type and severity of their depression symptoms, so you should always speak to a medical professional to get advice and a diagnosis.
Here are some helpful strategies that can help teens to cope with depression:
Medication and psychotherapy
Encourage your teen to speak to their doctor. A doctor will be able to diagnose depression, prescribe effective medications, and/or suggest psychotherapy (talk therapy). Most teens can be effectively treated for depression through a combination of these two treatments, and some may do well with psychotherapy alone.
Your teen might choose to have psychotherapy with family members, on a one-on-one basis, or in a group setting. Through routine psychotherapy sessions, your teenager can:
Learn how to identify unhealthy thoughts or behaviors and make changes
Learn about the causes of depression
Set realistic goals
Explore experiences and relationships
Regain a sense of control and happiness
Find better ways to solve and cope with problems
Effectively adjust to crises and challenges
Psychotherapy will also equip your teen with the tools they need to deal with future episodes and stress, while teaching them how to regulate their emotions more effectively.
Offer support and understanding
Educate yourself on depression to get a better understanding of what your teenager is going through. The more you know, the more sympathetic you can be.
Never react with criticism or disappointment if depression starts to affect your teen’s performance at school or makes them more irritable. Remember that depression is an illness that your teen can’t help having.
The best thing you can do is just be there for them, encouraging them to express their feelings. Listen to your teen actively and sympathetically. Nobody expects you to fix their problems or take their depression away, but you can be there for them and make them feel supported no matter what.
Support your teen’s day-to-day life by gently encouraging healthy eating and exercise, and remind them to take their medication if they have been prescribed any. Suggesting group activities that promote wellness might be helpful, such as heading out for a family walk or eating at your teen’s favorite restaurant.
You can get your teen help by first talking with their primary care doctor. They'll likely refer them to a mental health professional or therapist. Both the doctor and a therapist will come up with the best strategy to help your teen overcome or manage their depression.
Some teenagers living with depression don't want to get help. They might react with anger, begging, or even violence if you suggest it. Even if you’re met with resistance, continue to seek help for your teen. Do your best to approach the situation with compassion and understanding, and ask your teen what they need from you to help them cope with their illness.
If you fear your teen may self-harm or do something reckless, you need to get help now. If they start talking about suicide, even in an abstract way like saying everyone would be better off without them, you need to take this risk seriously and act immediately.
Talk to your family doctor if you are concerned about your child’s wellbeing. They may suggest an outpatient treatment program or a hospital stay to improve your teen’s symptoms and keep them safe.
If your teen is struggling with depression, recognize that symptoms aren’t easy to overcome without support. Being depressed is not a choice your teen has made; they can't simply decide to feel better.
You and your family can take steps to help your teen and offer the support they need. A doctor may suggest interventions like medication and psychotherapy. These treatments are used to treat many teens with depression, and can make a real difference.
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