Understanding Depression in Teens


Understanding Depression in Teens


I frequently have parents in my office who are struggling with relationships in their family. Commonly, concern is expressed about the behavior of teenagers. As we discuss these concerns it is clear that parents are worried about their teenagers but they sometimes are not sure how they can help or even understand the underlying problem.

In fairness to all parents of teenagers, how can you know the difference between a teenager’s normal, average mood changes and the warning signs of depression?

Moodiness is a rite of passage into adolescent years. Fits of anger, followed by intense jubilation, followed by the blues are commonplace. The teen years are ones of change, growth, conflict, burgeoning independence, remarkable maturity and remarkable immaturity.

Hormones, growth spurts, or the lack of, and complex relationships, however intense but brief, are regular staples in the mix. Layer on top the world of expectations of teachers, friends, parents and self and we wonder how any adolescent manages these years without serious emotional problems.

Today, in this country, one in eight teenagers is battling depression.

Many factors contribute to this statistic. Individual brain chemistry plays a vital role. A family history of depression or other mental disorders may increase the risk. Difficult life events can easily trigger bouts of depression at this time. Lifestyle choices, side effects from medication and even negative thought patterns can all play a role.

The management of stress and worry are critical to a teenager’s mental health. Things go wrong, and teenagers are too young to have developed a life perspective to help keep things in balance. Choices about friendships, dating and intimacy, alcohol and drugs, school courses, and careers when coupled with uncertainties about abilities can create intense worry. Conflicting messages from parents, teachers, friends, society and the media can all create intense stress.

To manage stress and worry, teens need to stay connected with people in all the spheres of influence, friends, family and school. They need to find activities they enjoy and invest time in developing those skills. And, they need to have a plan on where and to whom they can go when problems become too big to handle alone.

Depression can be difficult to diagnose, but easy to treat. Prompt, professional treatment is the key. Depression is serious and, if left untreated, can worsen to the point of being life-threatening.

Treatment options are varied. Counseling, whether cognitive-behavioral (changing one’s thinking and behavior patterns) or interpersonal (focusing on developing healthier relationships), provides the opportunity to explore painful or troubling problems as well as develop healthy coping skills. Medication can provide relief from the symptoms of depression and is frequently prescribed along with counseling.

Knowing the symptoms of depression in teenagers can keep parents alert to the changes they see in their child.

A withdrawal from friends, family or school activities is a clear warning sign. A new and persistent sadness coupled with comments of hopelessness should alert parents that a depressive change may be occurring. Teenagers are normally optimistic; expressions of hopelessness are not normal.

A lack of energy, enthusiasm or motivation, an overreaction to criticism, expressions of poor self-image or guilt, and feelings of an inability to meet reasonable expectations are all possible signs of depression. Changes in eating or sleep patterns, an increased restlessness, agitation, or irritability, reoccurring bouts of anger or rage, substance abuse or alcohol problems, and thoughts or writings of suicide are all clear markers of a child in trouble.

It is so easy to say, “Just snap out of it.” We want them to snap out of it because we want them well and free of problems. Because we want only good things for our children, it is too easy to gloss over the clues of depression.

“What are you thinking about?” “What are you feeling?” “Tell me about it,” and “How can I help?” are four critical expressions of concern all parents should be using daily to keep in touch, to keep lines of communication open and to gauge the level of problems and coping skills facing their child on a regular basis.

Adults sometimes say, “Suicide is never the answer.” The reality for teens is that sometimes it appears to be the only answer. An unattended sense of hopelessness can lead to an impulsive, self-destructive act.

Depression is real and treatable. When in doubt about your child, err on the side of caution. Always seek help.

Matthew Walton, DO

Canyon View Family Medicine


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