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Depression in Teenagers: Signs and Strategies for Parents

Depression in Teenagers: Signs and Strategies for Parents

Mom and daughter dressed in white, consoling teenager, indicating support for depression in teenagersParents of teens know some days can be better than others. Teenagers face a number of causes of stress: social and academic pressures, growing pains and emotional volatility.

These factors can wreak havoc on a teenager’s mood – and may contribute to the growing number of teenagers facing depression.

The number of adolescents between 12-17 years old who experienced at least one major depressive episode within a year increased from 8.7% in 2005 to 13.2% in 2017, according to an article in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. That means the instances of teenage depression increased by about 50% in just a 12-year period.

How Depression in Teenagers is Different

Parents may not know what’s normal “moody teenage” behavior – or when it crosses the line into something more serious.

Button with GeneSight logo and text learn more about the GeneSight test“It can be difficult to tell the difference between ups and downs that are just part of being a teenager and teen depression,” writes the Mayo Clinic. “Talk with your teen. Try to determine whether he or she seems capable of managing challenging feelings, or if life seems overwhelming.”

The Mayo Clinic suggests parents should look for emotional changes. For teenagers, they may exhibit increased feelings of sadness or anger, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, or decreased self-esteem. Teenagers who are suffering from depression can also show a change in behavior, such as erratic sleeping patterns, use of alcohol or drugs, or neglect of personal hygiene.

The Mayo Clinic urges parents to monitor risk factors that could trigger depression in teenagers, such as:

  • Traumatic or stressful life events
  • Self-esteem issues related to bullying, peer-problems, body-image and academic performance
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions
  • Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in an unsupportive environment

Teenager in cool shoes stands on pavement painted with white arrows pointing in different directions.

Parents may want to pay especially close attention to their teenage daughters. Teen girls are nearly three times as likely to experience a depressive episode compared to teen boys, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. However, there is cause for hope: the analysis showed that teen girls are more likely to have received treatment than boys.

“Among teen girls who had recent depressive episodes, 45% received treatment for depression over the past year. By comparison, 33% of teen boys with recent depressive episodes received treatment,” wrote A.W. Geiger and Leslie Davis in the Pew analysis.

How to Help your Teenager Battle Depression

First, if you see signs of depression in your teenager, or suspect your child may be suffering from depression, consider talking with your child’s doctor. Many people start with their primary care physician and may ask for a referral to a mental health specialist, if needed.

Their doctor or specialist then may recommend some form of therapy. Mental Health America shares some of the most common ways to treat teenage depression:

  • Psychotherapy – also known as talk therapy. Providing a safe environment to explore events and discuss painful feelings, psychotherapy can help teens with coping skills
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy– this kind of therapy helps teens change negative patterns of thinking and behaving into positive thoughts and behaviors
  • Interpersonal therapy– this therapy focuses on improving interpersonal relationships and social functioning to reduce distress
  • Medication– often prescribed with one or more of the above therapies, medication may help relieve some symptoms of depression

There are several practical tips you could consider. First, provide emotional support to your child; let them know you are there for them and love them unconditionally. Further, be sure to recognize and acknowledge that they are struggling and that it is OK to feel this way. Educating yourself on the realities of depression can help you understand how your teen is feeling and enable you to help them with empathy and sincerity.

The National Institute on Mental Illness (NAMI) says in order to show support without pushing a teenager away, parents should consider spending quality time with their child and encouraging open and honest conversations. When you are talking with your child, parents should really listen to what they are sharing. Finally, parents should encourage their teenagers to get regular exercise, eat healthy, and get consistent sleep.

Starting the Conversation about Depression with your Teens

African American mother and son hold hands on sofa, indicating support for depression in teenagersOne of the hardest things about helping your teen with their depression struggles may be taking the first step.

VeryWell Mind suggests parents could start by sharing the various facts and myths related to depression:

“Remind your child that people may not understand or might be misinformed, but that there is no reason to feel embarrassed or ashamed. Teens should also know that it is their choice whether or not they want to tell people about their diagnosis, but that it is not something that they need to hide.”

Parents can work to minimize the stigma associated with mental illness by treating depression as seriously as other health conditions. “Comparing depression to another medical illness that your child is familiar with may help them to frame depression as an illness and better understand their symptoms, the importance of treatment, and that they shouldn’t feel alone or abnormal,” writes VeryWell Mind. Finally, while parents may find that suicide is a very difficult topic to discuss, there may be benefits to addressing it directly during these conversations.

“It’s a myth that if you mention suicide, you might plant the idea,” writes the American Psychological Association (APA). “By honestly and openly expressing your concerns, you’ll send an important message that you care and understand.”

Further, if your teenager starts to talk about suicide or depression, be sure you really listen to them. Tell them you want to hear about it and that you might not have all the answers, but you will do whatever it takes to get them the help they need.

Importantly, if you suspect your child has suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or seek immediate medical care for your teen. The APA suggest that parents should prioritize safety during this time: remove weapons from the home and do not leave children alone.

For more information on children and depression, read our blog post, “Self-Care Skills to Manage Mental Health in Children.”

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Our articles are for informational purposes only and are reviewed by our Medical Information team, which includes PharmDs, MDs, and PhDs. Do not make any changes to your current medications or dosing without consulting your healthcare provider.

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