In a recent episode of Your Hope Filled Perspective podcast, I chatted with counselor Michelle Nietert about depression and mental health issues in children [if you missed that episode listen here: Childhood Depression: What Does it Look Like and How Can Parents Help – Episode 95]. In a previous post, we examined information pertinent to depression in children [you can read that post here: Understanding Depression in Children (and Teens)]. While there is significant overlap regarding depression in children and teens, there is enough variability in teens that it warranted its own post. If you are the parent or loved one of a teenager, this post about depression in teens contains valuable information for you to know.
Many believe the myth few, if any, children suffer from depression, but the research suggests that approximately 1 in every 33 children (if not more) have depression. As I mentioned in a previous post on Understanding Depression in Children, prior to ten years of age, more boys suffer from depression, but by the age 16, girls tend to suffer from depression more often than boys. Girls at age 15 are three times as likely to suffer a major depressive episode as 12 year old girls. In the teen years, the rate of depression climbs to one in eight. The numbers of children/teens who suffer tend to increase if other family members have suffered: 25% of kids who have a parent who has suffered from clinical depression will experience their own episode. If both parents suffered, the risk increases to 75%.
For many parents, this may shock you:
Sixty-one percent of 8th-10th graders reported feeling sad and hopeless and thirty-six percent reported having nothing to look forward to, and sadly, thirty-four percent of teens expressed serious thoughts of committing suicide. About five percent of teens suffer from major depression at any one time and approximately twenty percent of teens will experience depression before they reach adulthood.
Most teens with depression will suffer from more than one episode, and an estimated 20-40% will have more than one episode within two years, while seventy percent will have more than one episode before adulthood. Research suggests that fifteen percent of teens with depression eventually develop bipolar disorder and a conservative estimate suggests thirty percent of teens with depression also develop a substance abuse problem.
While no two individuals with depression will present exactly the same way, there are many common signs and symptoms that are important for parents to be aware of.
Typical Teen Depression Symptoms
You can find a more extensive list of depressive symptoms in children and teens in a previous post [read more here Understanding Depression in Children], but here are some of the most common symptoms.
- Change in sleeping or eating habits (sleeping or eating too much or too little)
- Decreased energy, fatigue, sleeping all the time
- Restlessness and agitation
- Tearfulness, frequent crying
- Feeling sad, down, or irritable
- Feeling guilty, worthless, or hopeless
- Lack of enthusiasm and motivation
- Feeling lonely
- Feeling sensitive, easily upset or frustrated
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Lack of interest in the future
- Not feeling like doing things
- Feeling or talking about wanting to be dead or better off not being there
- Separation anxiety occurs in about 50% of adolescent depression
- Withdrawal from or change in friends
- Irresponsible, rebellious or risk taking behavior
- Dramatic change in personality or behavior
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing thoughts
- Dulled thinking
- Excessive or inappropriate guilt
- Decline in school performance
As a parent it can be difficult to know whether your teen is experiencing depression or normal teenage behavior. Depression symptoms last longer than typical teen angst. Rather than coming and going, the negative emotions and change in behavior continue for weeks or months at a time. Sadly, less than 33% of teens with depression get help, yet eighty percent of teens with depression can be successfully treated.
Untreated depression in teens can have detrimental consequences. In general, depressed teens tend to have more trouble at school and in jobs, and to struggle in relationships than their nondepressed peers. Teens who struggle with depression, catch more physical illnesses. Teens with untreated depression are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, leading to higher rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Teen Depression Risk Factors
Teens are at an increased risk of depression when there is a family history of depression and/or anxiety. Those who live in a family where there is frequent conflict are at higher risk of depression, as are those who have an absent parent. Teens are also at an increased risk of depression when they have a history of childhood trauma, chronic medical illness, and/or low self-esteem.
How Teen Depression Looks Different From Depression in Adults
Whereas depressed adults tend to isolate totally, depressed teens tend to isolate from their parents while they often still engage with their friends or make new friends.
Furthermore, teens often don’t handle criticism or failure well, which is why they will often avoid parents and other adults, because they can’t handle the disapproval from others.
Depressed teens will often “not feel good” and suffer from transient physical ailments like headaches or stomachaches. Emotionally, teens tend to exhibit more irritability, agitation, and/or anger than typical sadness exhibited in adult depression.
How Can Parents Help Their Depressed Teen?
The teen years are often a time when kids will try to spread their wings, and yet behavior must be monitored and guided. Allow your teen to make mistakes in a supportive and loving environment. When disciplining your teen, replace shame and punishment with positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior. Shame and punishment result in feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.
As parents, avoid the tendency to try to relief your youth through your teen’s activities and interests. Be interested in what your teens are interested in and be a keen observer of your teen’s behavior and words, and any notable change therein.
Remember that in childhood and adolescence, reality isn’t what is important, it’s their perception of reality that’s key. So, a keen parent will listen not just to the words their teen speaks, but to the emotion behind their comments as well. If you suspect your teen may be depressed, take the time to be present and listen to their concerns.
While teens are sometimes a bit reluctant to share as much with their parents as they did in their earlier childhood years, it’s important for parents to try to keep the lines of communication open with their teen, even when it appears your teen may be attempting to withdraw. Try to avoid telling your teen what to do, rather, listen and help them problem solve for themselves. This builds confidence in themselves.
Remember that as a parent, it’s most important that you be your teen’s safe place to fall. Be their parent, and avoid the tendency to think you have to solve all their problems. Be willing to seek help from an unbiased mental health professional. Above all, always convey there is HOPE!
We’ve spent this post and a previous blog post discussing the most important information regarding childhood and teen depression [read more here: Understanding Depression in Children], we would be remiss if we didn’t also have a post about the risks of childhood and teen suicide. That will be the focus of the next post. Additional important information regarding depression can be found in my award-winning books Hope Prevails: Insights From a Doctor’s Personal Journey Through Depression and the companion Hope Prevails Bible Study.