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Teenage Depression: What to Look For

Special needs mom, Clinical and School Psychologist
09/27/22  10:26 AM PST

Our teens are suffering. As a parent, it is heartbreaking to watch our (bigger) babies hurt so badly. In addition to normal teen angst, teens are grieving the loss of many in-person milestones that the pandemic made difficult, such as graduations, dances, proms, field trips, athletic games and tournaments, school plays and theater, and the spontaneous social interactions that they crave and need.

As a parent of tween and a full-blown teenager, I know that they can be surly and grouchy during the rare times that they arise from their rooms that are lit only with different colored LED lights.  This “normal” teen surliness makes it even more difficult to know when your teen is really struggling vs. the usual presentation of a teen who is trying to separate and individuate from us, as their parents, and develop their own identity as an independent, new person.

Signs and Red Flags

As a parent, your biggest warning sign is the change in your child’s mood or behavior.  Things to look for:

  • A higher level of agitation
  • A lower level of agitation or appeared resignation
  • Sleeping too much
  • Sleeplessness or insomnia (you hear your child awake around the house over the course of the night, e.g., 2:00a)
  • Eating too much; weight gain
  • Eating too little; weight loss
  • Not turning in assignments
  • Low motivation for academics and social interactions
  • Low energy
  • Skipping class – virtually or refusing to go to school, if hybrid

Assess the Bedroom

As you are noticing, your tween or teen’s bedroom has become their “apartment”, their space that they guard and value for hours each day.  Although it’s typical for a teen’s room to be messy, take note of the following:

  • Clothes scattered all over the room with little regard for what’s clean vs. dirty
  • Blinds are down and barely up
  • Burrowing under the covers for hours (to avoid interactions with teachers, parents and friends)
  • Eating solely in their space
  • Piling up dishes and garbage in the bedroom

Advice For Parents

As parents, we may not fully understand how much our teens are hurting, especially when their words can be mean or hurtful to us. Instead, many parents end up taking privileges or electronics away, which further worsens the situation. Our teens then feel misunderstood, become more angry and hostile, and rebel even more as a way of letting us know they are unhappy.  Our instinct may be to become more restrictive, but that approach just doesn’t work and will result in a large emotional gap between you and your child.  Instead:

  • Ask Questions
    • Ask questions instead of telling your child what you think right away
    • “Why do you think that happened?”
    • “Is there anything you think you can do about that?”
    • “What do you think?”
    • “How would you like to deal with this situation?”
  • Listen
    • Listen without interpreting or giving unsolicited advice
    • Listen, really listen
    • Try to say no more than 2 sentences overall
    • Ask before you offer your thoughts or interpretations
      • “Can I share my thoughts with you?”
      • “Can I tell you what I think?”
    • Add the caveat – “This is what I think but you will have to form your own opinion.”
  • Validate
      • “That sounds so difficult”
      • “I’m sorry you’re feeling like this”
      • “I’m sorry you’re going through this”
      • “What can I do to help?”
  • Thank your teen for sharing his or her thoughts.

Depressed teens tend to feel ashamed of their thoughts and worry about being wrong or “getting in trouble”. They put their own thoughts and opinions down for fear of upsetting another. But this burden and fear of another person becoming upset tends to turn in resentment and anger that will likely come out towards you, the parent. Thanking your teen makes them feel like their thoughts and feelings are valued and important to you, which is comforting and helps them to feel safe.

    • “Thank you for telling me what you think or how you feel”
    • “I’m grateful that you shared this with me”

If your teen continues to struggle, is engaging in self harm or is not responding to your parenting efforts, seek professional help through a psychologist for therapy, and a psychiatrist for consideration of medication.

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