This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Parenting Teens magazine. To learn more about this publication, please visit www.lifeway.com/parentingteens.
It is normal for adolescents to feel sad, irritable, or withdrawn from time to time. In fact, these feelings are part of what it means to be human. Biblical heroes such as Elijah, Hannah, Job, David, and even Jesus went through periods of emotional turmoil during which they cried out to God. But for many teenagers—nearly 3 million every year—the despair reaches an intensity that warrants significant intervention, such as therapy or medication. Knowing what depression is—and what it isn’t—can equip you to respond effectively when your teen is struggling.
What to look for
While depression can only be diagnosed by a trained counselor or medical professional, you can still be informed about what symptoms to look for and when to pursue help. A sudden drop in grades, social isolation, or persistent feelings of anger may be the first signs of an issue. Here are other red flags:
- feelings of sadness or hopelessness for most of the day
- frequent thoughts of self-hatred, worthlessness, or guilt
- sleeping too much or too little, feeling lethargic
- lack of interest in activities that used to be fun or pleasurable
- restlessness or irritability
- difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- rapid weight gain or loss
- frequent thoughts about death, dying or suicide
A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if your teen’s behaviors are acute, ongoing, or pervasive. Does your teen cry for long periods of time or for multiple days in a row? Has she been consistently isolating herself from family and friends? Are people in multiple areas of her life (family, school, church) noticing a pattern of irritability or anger? If so, it may be a good idea to have her evaluated by a counselor or her pediatrician.
Discouraged or depressed?
Any normal life stressor can trigger symptoms of depression, but not necessarily the full-blown disorder. Here are some that your teen may encounter, and what to expect.
- Grief. We all experience periods of feeling blue, unmotivated, anxious, distracted, or tired during times of loss or change. Teenagers are no different, except they are often faced with several changes in a very short period of time. Experiences such as a change of friend group or an athletic injury can be devastating for some teens. While normal grief can come in waves and be very intense for periods of time, the sadness lifts eventually. It should still be monitored, however, in the event that your teen feels he can’t climb out of it.
- Negative behavior. Teenagers may sulk, give us the silent treatment, slam their door, or mouth off. These behaviors, however unpleasant, are not unusual or necessarily cause for concern (though they should be addressed and corrected with fair discipline). A pattern of irritability and anger, however (especially in boys), could mean there is a mood issue going on. Keep the lines of communication open with your teen if you notice consistent angry outbursts and give him a chance to share what’s going on inside.
- Hormonal issues. Hormonal changes affect brain chemistry and can therefore contribute to adolescents’ emotional experience. But true clinical depression is a lot more than just moody days or a need for alone time. Severe withdrawal behavior, suicidal thoughts, or significant sleep disturbances are not standard experiences for teenagers, and should be addressed by a professional. It can also be helpful for moms to talk openly with their daughters about any mood issues related to their menstrual cycle, since some forms of depression are specifically related to female hormones.
What teens need
Even if your teen seems to be doing fine, it’s important to lay a relational groundwork of trust and openness for her to share about her feelings. That way, if she does go through an emotional struggle, she won’t keep it inside. You may not be able to prevent your teen from experiencing depression (in some cases it is hereditary), but here are some “best practices” for intervening.
- Be approachable. It’s not just the words you speak, but also your tone of voice, body language, and ability to control your own reactions. If you consistently respond with grace and patience when your teen shares with you, the message you send is that she can talk to you about anything.
- Listen. It seems simple, but listening goes a long way—specifically reflective listening, a technique in which you take what someone has just said and repeat it back to them in their own words. Depressed teens often just want someone to understand what it feels like. Listening also lets you step back and look beyond a negative behavior to see what’s going on underneath.
- Take it seriously. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 percent of high school students have reported considering suicide. If your teen talks about having suicidal thoughts, don’t dismiss them. Listen carefully to his experience and follow up by reaching out to the school counselor, pediatrician, or a mental health professional. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
- Teach your teen to ask for help. If your teen is willing to reach out when he’s struggling, he will be well on his way to recovering from a dark place. In addition, if he has a friend who is struggling, be sure he tells you or another adult. No teenager should put himself in the position of carrying a friend’s burden alone.
Sometimes depression has a cause or a trigger, and other times it doesn’t—your teen may just not be able to help feeling sad. “Why?” is less of an important question than “How does that feel to you?” or “How can I help?” Your presence, and the presence of the Holy Spirit through you, is powerful. Encourage your teenager with the truth that God does heal:
“I waited patiently for the LORD, and he turned to me and heard my cry for help.
He brought me up from a desolate pit, out of the muddy clay,
and set my feet on a rock, making my steps secure.
–Psalm 40:1-2 (CSB)
Based on the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C: American Psychiatric Association.
Gretchen Raley is a Licensed Professional Counselor who comes alongside adolescents and their families as they work toward emotional and relational healing. Gretchen has worked with youth for 20 years in various capacities and lives with her husband, Nathan, and young son in Austin, Texas, where she’s never far from a good coffee shop or breakfast taco. You can read more about her counseling work at gretchenraleylpc.com.