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Depression in Teens

If you’re the parent or guardian of a teenager, then you know they have emotional ups and downs. That’s normal.

But maybe you’re worried because your child’s latest emotional low seems to be lasting at lot longer than it should. Maybe they’ve been sleeping a lot more. Maybe they’ve lost interest in school. Maybe they’ve stopped spending time with friends, and they’re in their room alone most of the time. Maybe they’ve even mentioned thoughts of suicide.

If you see your kid doing any of these things, you’re seeing symptoms of depression.

What is depression?

Depression: A Growing Problem

If your kid is showing these symptoms, they’re not alone. Depression is surprisingly common among young people. A recent study by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that 3 million American teens experience one or more major episodes of depression every year.

For the majority of these young people, that depression was so severe that they lost some ability to function during the day. Another study showed that nearly four out of every ten girls and two out of every ten boys have struggled with one or more anxiety disorders – another symptom of depression.

That’s a lot of hurting teens. And sadly, no one is exempt. Your child’s gender, income level, economic background, race, and achievement level will not make them immune to depression. And that impossibility of fully protecting your kid is part of what makes this problem so difficult.

23% of girls reported they seriously considered attempting suicide

Causes of Depression

Although researchers aren’t sure what exactly makes some people more vulnerable to depression than others, they have been able to pinpoint some factors that can lead to it:

  • Biological chemistry. Your kid’s chemical balance might have changed, increasing their risk of depression.
  • Hormones. As teenagers’ bodies change, fluctuations in hormone levels can lead to symptoms of depression.
  • Family history of depression. Your child is more likely to develop symptoms of depression if other people in their family have struggled with the same problem.
  • Trauma. If your child has gone through a traumatic experience such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, bullying, a divorce or the loss of a parent, they’re more likely to struggle with depression.

“Having anxiety and depression is like being scared and tired at the same time. It’s the fear of failure, but no urge to be productive. It’s wanting friends, but hate socializing. It’s wanting to be alone, but not wanting to be lonely. It’s feeling everything at once then feeling paralyzingly numb.”

Teen look angry in front of a parent

Symptoms of Depression

When should you be concerned? Is your teen’s emotional low just a phase, or is it more serious than that? These are good questions that any concerned parent would have. If your child shows any of the following behavior patterns, they are at risk, and they need help:

  • Prolonged periods of feeling sad or hopeless (two weeks or more)
  • Loss of concern over personal appearance/hygiene issues
  • A lack of interest in physical activity
  • A lack of self-esteem
  • Substance abuse
  • Isolation/ seclusion from friends and family
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • A change in sleeping habits
  • Loss of interest at school
  • Mentioning death or suicide
  • Giving away personal belongings
  • Increased arguing with parents
  • Irritation
  • Anger
  • Increased sensitivity to criticism
  • Increase in headaches or other physical problems
  • A change in appetite (eating significantly more or significantly less)

Teen Depression and Substance Use

Teen depression and substance use appear to go hand in hand. Researchers are starting to examine the causality of depression and substance use, recognizing that teens may start turning to drugs and alcohol as a way to manage depression symptoms, only to exacerbate them, thus creating a vicious cycle.

Additionally, because mental health and substance use treatment tend to be treated separately, there is a growing body of psychiatrists and therapists who believe the best treatment outcome is to treat them together, recognizing and validating the connection between depression and substance abuse.

A teen girl sitting alone in the locker room sadly

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Parents’ Corner

Is it depression or just growing pains?

As your teen enters puberty, there will be times when he or she seems moody, tired, irritated and simply not themselves. How can you tell if it’s just growing pains or depression? Look for how long symptoms of irritation, moodiness and feeling sad last. If they seem to be persisting longer than a few days and are more intense than normal, talk to your teenager about it and speak to your doctor.

Preventing Depression

Maybe your teen is emotionally healthy, and you’re simply concerned about the possibility that they could develop symptoms of depression. If that’s the case, here are some ways you can help to keep them happy, healthy and balanced. Encourage them to:

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet. When young people have a habit of regularly eating healthy meals, their hormone levels are more likely to be in balance, and they’re more likely to feel physically and mentally well.
  • Exercise regularly. Experts also recommend 30 minutes of physical activity, at least four days a week. Exercise is great for the body – it boosts endorphins and relieves stress and anxiety.
  • Lower their stress level. Too many extracurricular activities (sports, etc.) can put undue pressure on your child, leading to physical and emotional problems. Help them prioritize their activities, manage their time and avoid overextending themselves.
  • Build and maintain healthy relationships with peers and with family. Connections with friends and family are extremely valuable for your child’s mental health.
  • Get enough sleep. Experts recommend that teens get eight to ten hours of sleep per night.

The Truth About Teen Depression

Megan Shinnick

Treatment Options

Depression, left untreated, is no way to live in this world. The best outcomes are the combination of psychiatric medication and therapy. Medication can help alleviate depressive symptoms. Individual and family therapy can help your teen learn coping strategies while family members learn more about what depression is and how they can be supportive.

Sandstone Care has a teen residential program that treats depression and substance use in Cascade, Colorado.

What to Do If Your Child Seems Depressed

One of the hardest things a parent can experience is watching their child suffer through this challenging phase of life without knowing how to help. If you’re seeing signs of depression, here are some things you can do:

  • Talk to your teen – and actively listen. Ask them how they’re doing, and hear them out.
    It won’t be easy, but do your best to help them open up about their struggles and fears. Let them know they’re safe and won’t be judged or punished for their honesty – they need an outlet for the pent-up stress they’re dealing with. As they open up, you’ll gain insight into other ways you can help them.
  • Talk to your primary care physician. Depression can have physical causes. Your child’s physician may be able to explain physical issues involved with the depression symptoms.
  • Get immediate help in a crisis. Although every parent prays that this never happens, situations can escalate. Be on the lookout for signs of suicidal behavior. If your child is threatening suicide, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 immediately.
  • Get advice and support. Sandstone Care accepts young people completely, just as they are. Young people feel right at home in our warm, youth-focused environment. Our compassionate and caring staff is at the ready seven days a week to answer any questions you have and offer guidance as to how to best deal with your unique situation. Give us a call at (888) 850-1890.
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