Society loves portraying teens as moody, mercurial creatures – and sometimes, your kid may fit that stereotype to a tee. But before you chalk up your child’s next hissy fit to hormones, know that sometimes, something more serious could be going on: depression. It’s far more common than you might think: more than 1 in 10 teens will be diagnosed with a depressive disorder by the age of 18.
But the signs of depression in teens often differ from the symptoms seen in adults and are hard to spot. Here are some of those more surprising red flags that parents should be looking for:
Signs of depression in teens
“Although we tend to think of depression as sadness, teenagers often react to depression with a higher level of irritability: their behavior often becomes more apathetic, grumpy, and indifferent,” says Mark Loewen, a teen counselor in Richmond, Virginia. Since even the happiest teen can grouse occasionally about chores or turn into a mute come dinnertime, the only time to really worry is if these symptoms last for days or weeks and have a hopeless “nothing matters anyway” quality. That’s a sign that depression may lurk under that prickly exterior.
Is your teen constantly dragged down by stomachaches, headaches, or other mystery ailments where he’s begging to stay home from school? It may be a ruse – or his depression is actually making him feel sick.
If your teen suddenly stops playing baseball or backs out of the debate team or other extracurriculars he once relished, depression could be sapping his enthusiasm. “Depression weakens the reward system in the brain, which means that teens experience less pleasure performing activities they used to enjoy,” says Loewen.
Out of the blue, your teen has glommed onto you to a degree that you haven’t seen since you’d dropped him off at preschool. Or your teen may be spending most of his time with one friend, or just not be socializing as much as he used to. They may even express an excessive worry that you or someone they’re close to may die.
Sure, teens and social media go hand in hand these days, but one study by the University of Michigan found that the more teens log onto this social networking site, the more negative their mood becomes. Whether Facebook actually causes this bleak outlook or depressed people are just more drawn to Facebook is unclear. But either way it doesn’t look good, which is why experts have a name for it: “Facebook depression.”
If you catch your teen drinking, smoking, or skipping school, of course you’re irate! But this rebellious behavior may have its roots in depression if you find that the motivation is less about living it up and more about who cares if I live or die? “Since all teens take risks, you need to examine the attitude behind it,” says Loewen. “The attitude to worry about is if they think nothing matters. In other words, they may smoke, or take a walk at night by themselves, or have sex because they think what happens to them is no big deal.”
Sure, this is how all teens may feel to a point … but in teens with depression, the feelings of isolation are more intense, and often combined with more of the above symptoms.
Of course, spotting any one of the above signs doesn’t mean your teen is depressed. Rather, it’s the combination of numerous red flags that spell trouble.
So what should you do if you spot many of the above symptoms and think your teen needs help? First, don’t think this is something you can fix; this may require the expertise of a therapist or counselor. But don’t drag your teen to a shrink’s office, either.
“Parents should avoid trying to convince their child to seek professional help and getting into a power struggle,” says Loewen. “It is often enough to express to the teen that they don’t appear to be as happy as they could be, and that the parents want them to see someone about it.”
If your teen seems open to talking to someone, find two or three counselors in your area, then let him decide which one he likes best to give him a sense of control. From there, you can also let your teen choose whether he’d like to see the therapist alone or with you, and be respectful if your teen doesn’t want to spill every detail of what is said behind closed doors. Your teen may feel the need for some privacy to open up, which is the key to putting him on the path to a happier state of mind.