All of us have been there. The teen years are rife with mood swings and drama. An argument with a friend is the end of the world and two pieces of homework due at the same time is a disaster of catastrophic proportions.
So how do you know when your teen is depressed and what can you do to support them?
First, recognize that moody teen behavior is not the same as teen depression. The fact that your child used to be an early riser and now sleeps until noon is not necessarily a sign of a deeper problem. The things you should watch for are more subtle than your typical moody teen.
Second, understand that the signs of depression are not universal, they can be transient, and all of us experience different combinations of symptoms. There isn’t a simple checklist to categorically say your teen is depressed. So you can skip the online quizzes, they may give both false hope or false reassurance.
Instead, read all you can about depression from reputable sources. The more informed you are, the better equipped you will be to support your son or daughter on their journey. By arming yourself with knowledge, you will feel empowered to help, and you’ll be able to effectively advocate for your child, which is of particular importance when they are so ill they are unable to do so themselves.
The biggest red flag to look out for is usually an abrupt change in your child that lasts for more than two weeks or if your teenager’s mood impacts their ability to get through the day without a struggle.
Other warning signs include:
- A sustained sadness or hopelessness
- Lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Overreaction to the slightest criticism
- Being restless or agitated with no apparent cause
- Withdrawal from social activities or friends
- Low self-esteem / negative self-image
- Only has negative things to say
- Shortened concentration span
- Inability to make even the smallest decision
- Frequent non-specific minor physical symptoms like headaches or sore muscles
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Changes in eating habits or weight
- A sustained decline in academic performance
- Poor performance in school
- Sudden problems with authority
- Alcohol or other substance abuse
As you can see, many of these symptoms on their own, even a couple together could be the typical teenage upheaval but remember, you do not need to have all of these symptoms to be depressed, and you should listen to your heart as to whether or not your child has changed.
If you think your teen might be depressed the first thing you should do is ask them how they are doing. Many of us suffering from depression automatically say ‘fine’ when asked this question, so it is no guarantee they will tell you anything. But it is possible that your child is secretly crying out for the chance to have that conversation with you, so it’s worth taking a chance.
If your teen has depression, there are many ways in which you can give help and support.
Acknowledge Depression as an Illness
The first advantage of this is that it will, hopefully, prevent you from descending into a place of guilt over your child’s condition and it will also stop you from blaming them for being depressed. If you first think of depression as the illness it is, you’ll avoid saying unhelpful things like ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘count your blessings and be thankful you have.’ Your teen can’t help being depressed any more than they can avoid having other chronic illnesses.
Talk Openly (and Positively) About Mental Health
Your teen might be embarrassed, afraid of letting you down or appearing weak. Regularly make it clear that it is ok to be depressed. Talk often about your struggles with any mental illness and encourage a positive atmosphere where your child can feel comfortable about their illness.
One of the many horrible paradoxes of depression is that you often do not want to communicate, but communication can help get you out of the darkness.
Don’t make a big deal of sitting down for a big discussion but look for ways to talk in low-stress situations like preparing a meal, going for a walk or helping your child to tidy their room. Ask your teen if they have any suggestions about what might help them or share your ideas and ask if any of them would be helpful.
An excellent question, which we always find useful in our family is, ‘If I could do one thing right now to help you, what would it be?
Talk About Suicide
Mentioning suicide will not suddenly make someone kill themselves. Do not be too scared to ask if your teen has been having suicidal thoughts. If they haven’t, it will broach the subject and make it something they can talk about if it ever changes. But, if they have had suicidal thoughts, it gives them the opportunity to share that with you.
When you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, it can be a great relief to finally have the chance to discuss them without shame or retribution.
Enable Social Support and Friendships
Make it as easy as possible for your teen to spend time outside of the house with supportive friends. Offer to drive them so that transportation is not a hurdle, buy movie tickets online so they can avoid standing in line and speaking with the staff. Provide a private space within your home so friends can visit and they can be teenagers without fear of a parent eavesdropping or ‘cramping their style.’
Helping them to buy that one particular item of clothing or sports equipment can be enough to get your teen out of the house for a short while, just to share their new thing with friends. That may be all it takes to keep them going that week.
Some friendships fall by the wayside when a teen is depressed because their friends are busy with social activities or do not understand the illness. Try speaking with your teen’s school about depression education for everyone and help friends understand their importance.
Research shows that physical activity can play a role in reducing the symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, those paradoxes raise their heads again and make us less likely to exercise when we need it most.
Don’t try to force team sports or anything organized on your teen if they do not want it. Just the pressure of having to be at a particular location at a given time can be debilitating.
Instead, offer to go for a walk with them or ask if they would walk with a friend. Offer to drive them somewhere, and they can then walk home, throw a ball to each other in the yard, or get them to help cook or do yard work.
Above all, make it as easy as possible to start physical exercise and do not pressure your teen if they are not ready. Depression means this is going to be a process.
Discover Good Sleep Together
Teenagers with parents who enforce a 10 pm bedtime are significantly less likely to suffer from depression than teenagers who go to bed after 12 am.
Try modeling healthy sleeping patterns with your teen. You can reduce screen time before bed, relax together and watch some gentle TV, or chat about insignificant things. Don’t eat spicy foods less than 2 hours before bed and try to limit all forms of caffeine to the morning only.
The one thing to remember is that depression can make it terribly difficult to sleep. You find yourself wide awake at 3 am and need something to take your mind off of the negative thoughts that dominate your brain. TV, the Internet, and reading can all be good ways distract yourself, but they can also prevent sleep.
In our home, we found it useful to identify TV & movies that we’ve seen before that are not too stimulating and designate them ‘middle of the night watching.’ Likewise, there is a shelf of books with short stories, facts, and tips about all manner of things that are interesting enough to be distracting but not exciting enough to keep you awake.
By designating these resources ahead of time, you make it easier to make healthy choices in the middle of the night.
The Internet can be right or wrong for your mental health depending on which study you read, but it is harder for teens to reduce screen time when such a significant amount of their social life might revolve around the Internet.
The Internet exposes your teen to constant content that distorts their self-image and makes them feel bad about themselves. Some teens also explore readily available pornography which has been shown to hurt both mental and physical health.
The answer is, as with a lot of things, moderation and choices.
Speak with your teen and see if they are suffering from cyber bullying. Predators are especially skilled at slowly drawing teenagers into a place they feel unable to escape. Your teen may have done something online they are ashamed off and do not want to share with you. Make it very clear that nothing they have done can make you love them less and if they have found themselves in a cyberbullying situation your problem is with the bully not with your child, no matter what they might have done.
Lower Your Expectations
When your teenager has depression, it can help relieve the pressure they feel if they know you are not expecting perfection. If you require their room to be completely tidy, try saying that clothes must be put away and leave it at that instead.
If a family event is happening at your home and you would usually expect your teen to participate, look for a way to reduce pressure by having them help organize things beforehand instead or ask them to appear for 10 minutes to say hello and that’s it.
Seek Treatment Early
Do not wait until your teen is six months into their depression before you finally get help. Make your child’s mental health the priority. Don’t make appointments and attend them if it prevents your teen from going to a doctor, and always let your child know you want to help them. Your willingness to lend support will make it as easy as possible for them to get the help the need.
We spoke with our son about mental illness in general and let him know how important it was to get early treatment. We let him know depression is very common to suffer from and that there is no shame in it.
I booked an appointment, and our family doctor spoke to him in private. Our teenager then took a brave first step and booked himself an appointment with a therapist where he attended meetings alone. We let him know we were there for him if he wanted us to attend or be part of any discussion. But we also let him know as he was old enough and it was okay for him to maintain his privacy and tell us nothing if that is what he wanted. It’s important to be available for support but okay with supporting from a distance if that’s what your teen needs.
Give It Time
Getting better takes time. Do not expect your teenager to see the doctor and suddenly start to improve straight away. Therapy and medications (if you choose to use them) can take weeks, sometimes months, to fully take effect. Let your teenager know this as they may expect to get well soon and become despondent when they do not.
On days when your child is especially down and feeling hopeless, remind them that it is the chemicals in their brain sending those signals and that the negative feelings they have are not a reflection of what is real.
Some teenagers suffer one episode of depression and are lucky enough never to experience it again, but this is not true for everyone. More than half of teens who experience an episode of major depression will have further episodes in the future. So set your expectations for a long-term approach. And, if your teen does begin to experience another episode of depression, you’ll know that you are both already armed with knowledge and expertise to tackle it together once again.
Most of all, please know that depression is not a reflection on you or your teen. Depression has nothing to do with your failure or success as a parent because it is a common part of life. If you stay supportive and encouraging and follow these tips, you’ll be a positive influence on your child during a tough period in their life.
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