Teenagers are funny and sometimes strange creatures. They are loud, hungry, playful, and, let’s be honest… moody. It’s hard to tell sometimes if a teen is different because of “all those hormones” or because something more significant is happening. Over the last decade of being a therapist to teenagers, I know the heartache and struggle that parents go through wanting the best for their teen but not knowing when to step in and when it’s just “teen angst”. So I am here to help you see those signs a little bit more closely. I’ll help you identify subtle clues that will allow you to pause and ask some meaningful questions that could really support your teen in a tough season.
First let me help explain about the nuances of depression in a teenager. As adults we often think of depression as the typical signs that another adult would express. We think of sleeping all day, sadness, crying, sitting around and those are all true, however, depression in teens shows up just a little differently. The most distinct difference between adult and teen depression is often irritability and anger. You may notice snippy responses or short remarks that are happening more often or seem out of character. This is one of the key symptoms when it comes to depression in a teen. It’s possible this could be hormones but it’s also a big sign of increased depression.
3 other signs to look for:
- Slipping grades: If you notice that your teen is less motivated at school and the grades are suffering, it could be that they are depressed. Motivation, focus and fatigue are common symptoms of depression. If you notice your typical A / B student now getting C’s or even F’s it’s time to be curious. I caution against coming down on them for the poor grades if you notice the other symptoms. Instead be curious and ask about their life, friends and general well-being.
- Isolation: Teens love to be with friends and peers. It’s actually essential that they have that time with friends to develop. Any increase in isolation is cause for concern and prompt to ask yourself questions. Ask them if something is wrong and offer to listen without interrupting. Invite your teen to watch a show of their choice with you. They actually do want time with you despite their groans or comments
- Reduced interest in hobbies: If a teen is suddenly less interested in sports, hobbies or activities, this is also a sign of increasing depression. A common symptom in depression is reduced motivation and interest In hobbies. If your teen is not going to practice or quitting a hobby that was always a previously enjoyed pastime, it may be a good idea to pay closer attention.
So what’s next? Here are the 4 steps you can take. I encourage parents to think/lean into the situation and look past the mood. You are the biggest ally and advocate your teen has to move toward a health direction.
- Timing! Think back to what was happening when these changes started to become more noticeable. Was there an event or shift in the family? Did this teen have a problem with a friend, start a new school or experience a big change?
- Be curious. Ask questions without assuming you know the answer or inserting your opinion. Listen and be interested without judgement. You will get much more over time. Reflect back what you are hearing and with a calm tone to let your teen know that you are trying to understand.
- Offer help! Ask them if they need help or want support. I have had many teens actually ask their parents for therapy. It's’ a bold move! You can offer that you are willing to help or find someone if they are open to it.
- Finally, ask about suicide. I know! This sounds downright awful but let me help debunk some myths for you. You are NOT planting an idea in their mind. You are opening a door for them to be honest and unload what could feel like a very heavy weight. If they say “no”, believe them. If they pause or say “kinda” “sorta” or “yes”, take a deep breath and ask if they have had the thoughts recently and if they have any idea in mind of what they would do. Again, you are not creating the opportunity, you are giving them safety to get support. If the answer is yes, seek help right away. If they don't trust themselves in the moment, go the the ER. Otherwise, find a good therapist and do not shoulder this on your own. They need help and so do you.
With all of the changes in the past decade in our culture, and with COVID-19 lockdowns, our teens are more stretched than ever before. The pressures to keep up with grades, social events and media are heavier than we've experienced. As a parent or friend, you are a safe person that they can come to for support. Position yourself by leaning into their life with curiosity and non-judgmental responses. Refrain from being too quick to offer advice or problem solving. Moving too quickly to offer a “solution” may shut down the open communication which is critical to getting the right help.
Your teen is precious and can live an incredible life free of depression. I have seen it over and over. I am inspired by your teens and grateful for the work I get to do with them everyday. Let’s find a way forward from depression together!
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist