During the teenage years, it’s common for young people to sometimes feel stressed, sad, or angry for what seem like irrational or nonexistent reasons to someone else. For example, as a parent, you might not understand why your daughter is moping around for days over a comment made by a friend, or why your son is so angry about a misunderstanding over chores. While fluctuations in mood and strong feelings are hallmarks of adolescence, it’s important to recognize that some behaviors might indicate the serious problem of adolescent depression. Here are nine indications that your child might be experiencing adolescent depression.
#1. Sadness or Anger That Doesn’t Go Away
It’s completely normal for teens (and adults) to feel sad or angry on occasion. What’s not normal is having these negative feelings persist for many days or weeks. There are some situations where grief or sadness over a long period of time can be normal; if there has been a death in the family (including that of a pet) or your family is going through a traumatic time (such as losing your home), sadness or anger over a period of time can simply be part of getting through the stages of grief. However, if your teen seems to be angry or sad for no discernible reason for a long period of time, he or she might be suffering from adolescent depression.
#2. Unexplained Minor Illnesses, Aches or Pains
Many people don’t know that depression can carry with it physical pain. If your teen is often complaining of headaches, stomachaches or various aches and pains throughout the body, the cause may be mental rather than physical. Note that this does not mean that your child is not actually feeling the pain; the physical discomfort is real. It just means that a chemical imbalance, rather than a physical illness, might be the cause.
#3. Persistent Changes in Eating Habits
Like adults, teens often eat in response to their emotions. If your teenager suddenly has no appetite and seems to be losing weight or, conversely, is eating more than usual and gaining weight, depression might be the cause. Any major weight gain or weight loss in your adolescent should prompt a visit to the doctor to rule out medical causes, including an eating disorder, anxiety or depression.
#4. Loss of Interest in Favorite Activities
A depressed teenager might lose interest in previously favored activities. It is normal for young people to want to try new things and, sometimes, abandon old activities and sports. If your teen is not picking up new activities to replace those that they’re no longer interested in, however, this can be a sign of adolescent depression. So can dropping all favored activities at the same time. For example, a teen who plays soccer, volunteers at an animal shelter, and goes to the beach with friends on the weekends choosing to drop all of those activities can be displaying a symptom of depression. A teen deciding to drop soccer to join the chess club instead is often just experimenting with different activities, which is normal.
#5. Use of Alcohol or Drugs
While many parents think that alcohol or drug abuse is a separate problem from depression (and sometimes it is), the two conditions can go hand-in-hand. Some teens will attempt to self-medicate their bad feelings by turning to substances, and use can quickly turn to abuse. This, in turn, can worsen depression, because it can make a teen feel guilty and overwhelmed by keeping such a serious secret. If you suspect your child might be using drugs or alcohol, seek help and keep in mind that depression might be an underlying cause.
#6. Change in Sleeping Patterns
Many teens, if given the choice, would prefer to stay up late and sleep in. Your teen might do this on the weekends and during school breaks and be exhibiting completely common behavior. If your child’s sleep patterns are troubling him or her, however, or interfering with schoolwork and activities, adolescent depression could be at play. This mental health condition can cause insomnia or a tendency to sleep more than what is normally needed. Sometimes teens with depression will alternate between the two extremes.
#7. Bad Grades
If your teen takes pride in getting good grades, a significant drop can be just another stage of development or a sign that something serious is going on. In some cases, that “something serious” can be depression or another mental illness. One reason why depression can cause poor grades is that it tends to rob a person of motivation. If your teen is normally motivated to keep his or her grades up, succeed at extracurricular activities, or hold down a job, the loss of this motivation is worth looking into.
#8. Signs of Suicidal Thoughts
Major depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and, in some cases, a suicide attempt. Your child might come to you and express that he or she is having suicidal thoughts, but more often, parents need to be vigilant to pick up on subtle signs. Dropping friends, a sudden sense of relief or happiness during a time of sadness, saying things like, “things will be better when I’m gone,” or giving away prized possessions can all be symptoms of suicidal thoughts. This is a medical emergency; call your child’s doctor or head to the emergency room if you think that your teen might be seriously considering suicide.
#9. Other Types of Mental or Physical Illness
Adolescents suffering with anxiety or other types of mental illness can be more prone than average of developing depression. Teens with major physical health conditions can also be at risk of becoming depressed. If your teen has received a difficult diagnosis recently or earlier in childhood, be aware that coping during these years can become overwhelming. Seek counseling sooner, rather than later, if you suspect that your teen is beginning to show symptoms of depression along with any other conditions.
It can be difficult to tell if a teen is depressed or is simply having normal ups and downs of growing into adulthood. A visit to your pediatrician or family doctor can help confirm or rule out a mental health disorder. You can also seek counseling for your child on your own. Remember that you are your teen’s advocate, and that he or she might not recognize the signs of mental illness. If you suspect adolescent depression, get help so that your teen can start feeling better.
Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent mental health and drug treatment center dedicated to identifying, understanding and properly treating the core issues that impact teens and their families.