Teenage depression

Spotting the signs and supporting teenagers through depression

teenage depression

If your teenager is showing signs of depression, you may find yourself wondering whether it's 'just a phase' or something more serious. On average, three young people in every classroom are affected by mental health problems like depression. Many go undiagnosed and never get the help they need. Mental health problems cause more early deaths than either heart disease or cancer. Many teenagers are particularly vulnerable to depression, caused by the huge number of biological and social changes going on in their life, along with other factors like money worries and family breakdown. It can be difficult for many parents to know whether a child's moody or miserable behaviour is a sign of something more serious.

“It’s not always obvious with teenagers if they are depressed,” says Dr Arthur Cassidy, psychologist at the Belfast Institute, who works with children with depression. “Retreating to their bedroom for hours can be normal, but if they are withdrawing and seem disconnected from their friends too it could be a sign of depression.” While fortunately cases of severe depression in young people are relatively rare (YoungMinds says 1.4% or about 62,000 11-16 year-olds are seriously depressed) – it’s important for parents to recognise the signs and know when to seek help from their GP or a helpline.

Signs of teenage depression:

  • persistent sadness
  • loss of interest in life
  • tiredness/low energy. If this has been going on for more than a week, a parent should seek help.
  • treatments can include counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy and, in more extreme cases, medication.
  • extreme moodiness, irritability and volatile behaviour
  • giving up interests without finding any new ones
  • showing a lack of interest in school and/or a marked decline in schoolwork
  • concentration difficulties
  • losing contact with friends or suddenly embracing new friendships whilst distancing themselves from family
  • obsessively wanting to keep up with peers
  • not washing or looking after themselves properly
  • eating too much or too little
  • being self critical and overly worried about appearance
  • sleeping badly or too much
  • risky behaviour, such as drug taking, excessive alcohol consumption and not being in control sexually
  • thoughts of self harm

But without snooping round your child’s bedroom or reading their Facebook page, how are you going to know how they’re feeling? “Children have their own private world that they live in and it can often be very hard to work out what they are thinking,” says Dr Cassidy. “While it’s important to give them space so you don’t threaten their identity, try to listen out for clues as to how they are feeling.” Common triggers could be an upset such as splitting up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or not doing as well in something as they’d hoped. These events may not seem a big deal to you, but they may be major for your teenager. Try not to belittle what they’re going through; try to see it from their perspective.

If your teenager starts sending out negative statements about themselves, give lots of positive messages back. Encourage healthy eating, regular exercise and new challenges and adventures, for example encouraging them to take on a new activity, which can break them out of the spiral of depression.

Acknowledging your child is upset by listening and talking is really important too. Sometimes planting the seed that you’ve noticed they’re not happy and are ready to talk when they are can set the ball rolling. If your teen is particularly uncommunicative, trying communicating on their terms through a text or email saying you think they seem down in the dumps and you’re there if they need you. 

Most importantly, listen to your instincts. “Parents are the experts in their own children and if they are concerned something is not right then they generally know best,” says Claire Usiskin. “If a voice is telling you something is wrong then don’t be afraid to seek help.”

If you are concerned about your teen, please visit the Young Minds website or Time to Change for information, advice and videos. 

How we can help you

If you would like support and advice, you can talk to one of our Family Support Workers by calling our confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222. You can also share experiences and advice with other parents on our Forums. Family Lives is here for you and you can contact us about any family issue, big or small.

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