Could My Teen Be Depressed?

By Simone Rodin, Ph.D.

Perhaps more than any moment in our lifetimes, today’s teens are at risk of depression. Our world is an information-rich one with many pressures previous generations couldn’t have dreamed of going through—especially during their formative teen years! The pandemic significantly increased the risk of teen depression as social isolation and a loss of autonomy became commonplace. Our team at Wellspring has seen this firsthand. 

As a parent, exploring whether your teen could be depressed takes courage. But going on with your busy schedule while overlooking the warning signs can be far more challenging in the long run. Many teens have been feeling down due to the isolation, forced family time, and lack of usual connections as a result of the pandemic. However, if the expected bad moods, irritability, and sad feelings have become more extreme or have limited your child’s ability to function normally, it could be depression. If you are concerned that your child might be depressed, there are some potential indicators to be keeping in mind.

Warning Signs of Depression

  • Negative feelings and mood. Children with depression might feel unusually sad, discouraged, or hopeless. Some people feel guilty, unworthy, rejected, or unloved. Teens with depression may feel, angry, irritable, easily annoyed, or alienated.  Your teen might be isolating more than usual and refusing to participate in activities they previously enjoyed or withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Negative thinking. Negative thinking can make a person believe things will never get better, that problems are too big to solve, that nothing can fix the situation, or that nothing matters. Negative thinking can be self-critical, too. Your teen may believe they are worthless and unlovable. That can lead them to think about harming themselves or about ending their life. Negative thinking can block our ability to see solutions or realize that a problem is actually temporary.
  • Low energy and motivation. Teens with depression may feel tired, drained, or exhausted. They might move more slowly or take longer to do things. It can feel as if everything requires more effort. Teens who feel this way might have trouble motivating themselves to do or care about anything.
  • Poor concentration. Depression can make it hard to concentrate and focus. It might be hard to do schoolwork, pay attention in class, remember lessons, or stay focused on what others say.
  • Physical problems. Teens with depression may have an upset stomach or a loss of appetite. Some might gain or lose weight or have an eating disorder in addition to depression.
  • Social withdrawing/ Tech overuse. Teens with depression may pull away from friends and family or from activities they once enjoyed. They may spend all of their time playing video games or on social media as a way of avoiding their feelings. This usually makes them feel more lonely and isolated — and can make negative thinking worse.
  • Self-harm. Teens self-harm for many reasons.  However, self-harm is often a symptom of depression and should be taken seriously and treated. Depression can intensify feelings of worthlessness or inner pain. Children who self-harm or who go through extreme mood changes may have unrecognized depression.

Depression Can Go Unrecognized

Teens with depression may not realize they are depressed. Because self-critical thinking is part of depression, these teens might mistakenly think of themselves as a failure, a lousy student, or a bad person.

Because depression can affect how a person acts, it might be misunderstood as a bad attitude. Parents and teachers may think the teen isn’t trying or putting in any effort. For example, a negative or irritable mood can cause someone to act more argumentative, disagreeable, or angry. That can make the person seem difficult to get along with or cause others to keep their distance. Low motivation, low energy, difficulty concentrating, and thoughts of “why bother?” can lead someone to refuse to attend classes.  Of course, online school has complicated this issue for many teens.

What Helps Prevent Depression?

As a parent, you can help your teen avoid depression by working with them to find ways to maintain joy, connection, and purpose.  A helpful exercise I like to do with teens is to focus on building these three habits by “filling three buckets every day.” This strategy is a great starting point for your child to rediscover meaning in their lives. As parents, it can be easy for us to forget that, just like us, our children have an inherent need for purpose.

Here are the three buckets you can encourage your teen to “fill each day:”

  • What is one thing you can do that could bring you joy today?
  • What is one thing you can do to give yourself a feeling of accomplishment?
  • What is one way you can give back to someone else today?

These experiences and accomplishments need not be “spectacular.” Especially if depression is involved, it’s best if they aren’t. Besides, this is a good reminder that the significant accomplishments in life often consist of many small signposts rather than big “momentous” ones. 

Also, if you can encourage your teen to be more physically active and focus on getting enough sleep while doing this, all the better. A lack of physical exercise and inadequate sleep are other complications brought on by the pandemic that have only made teen depression worse.

 Discussing Potential Depression with Your Teen

If your child is experiencing many of the symptoms listed above and these have been going on for over a month, it may be time to get professional help.  Ultimately, only a licensed professional can determine for sure if your teen is experiencing clinical depression. 

Depression can get better with the right attention and care — sometimes more easily than a person thinks. But if it’s not treated, things can stay bad or get worse. That’s why parents who are concerned about their teen shouldn’t wait and hope it will go away on its own. 

When depression is recognized and treated, it often clears the way for other problems to get treated, too. If you’ve noticed what seems like more than the usual low points all teens go through, discuss your concerns with your teen. 

For some parents, it can feel risky to ask directly about depression. But it’s important to remember that the greater risk is failing to have such a vital discussion. Remind your teen that depression is not a character flaw but does require treatment to manage safely. Be sure to take a compassionate and nonjudgmental approach.

And don’t be afraid to ask some of the most challenging questions, such as, “Are you experiencing suicidal thoughts, and are you self-harming?” This is all the more critical since there aren’t always obvious warning signs regarding suicidal ideation or tendencies.

If you think your child or teen might be depressed, talk to them about getting professional help. If your teen refuses to talk to a therapist or school counselor, you can still get support for yourself as their parent. Often with the right support, parents can develop a plan for how to best help their teen. 

Crisis Support is Available

Most concerning is the potential for suicidal thoughts or attempts. If you have immediate concerns that your child is experiencing thoughts of suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. This service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In Marin, the mobile crisis response team is available to come to your home if needed to evaluate your child.

Marin Mobile Crisis Response Team: 1-415-473-6392 

Other Crisis Numbers

Marin Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741

Marin Suicide Prevention & Crisis Hotline: 415-499-1100

California Youth Crisis Line: 1-800-843-5200

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

LGBTQ Crisis Line: 866-488-7386

LGBTQ Text Line: Text “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200

All of these numbers can also be shared with your teen so that if an emergency arises for them or a friend, they will know who to call. Also, remind your teen how important it is for them to reach out to a trusted adult if they are concerned about a friend’s depression.

Dr. Simone Rodin, Director of Wellspring Psychotherapy Group,  is a psychologist with over twenty years of experience providing individual, child and family therapy. She sees adults dealing with life transitions, grief, anxiety, depression and parenting issues. Among her areas of expertise are children and teens, ADHD, divorce, co-parenting and step-parenting, adoption, attachment, social skills development, depression and developmental disorders. Dr Rodin is also recognized for her expertise in treating children and teens dealing with phobias, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sleep issues and generalized anxiety.

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