An estimated twenty percent of teenagers will experience depression at some point before the reach adulthood. Twenty to forty percent of those teens will experience more than on depressive episode within a two year period and an incredible seventy percent will have more than one depressive episode before they reach adulthood. These are very sobering figures, but they should serve to put parents, teachers and others who work with young people on alert. Teen depression is a serious matter, not to be taken lightly. As our teenagers are placed under more and more pressure by a society the moves fast and lives hard, we should keep a watchful eye and be ready to intervene when things get out of hand.
We are all well acquainted with so-called “teenage angst.” Television shows us the “typical” teenager (which really isn't typical at all), dressed in black, a sullen look on their face, lying around doing nothing and we told that this is normal. To some degree, this is normal teenage behavior, but we need to be cognizant of any changes in behavior or habits. Ideally, parents should maintain open lines of communication between themselves and their children, but this is sometimes easier said than done. So let's take this one step at a time, examine depression, its symptoms, it causes, preventative measures and what you, as a parent or influential person in the child's life, can do to help.
Depression or “Just the Blues”?
If we did not have sadness, we could not appreciate happiness. By the same token, if we did not have sadness, we would not have depression. Persistent sadness is one of the most prevalent, common symptoms of depression. Everyone feels sad now and then, including teens. But common sadness is generally a natural emotional response to an upsetting event, such as a death, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend or failing a test. Sometimes, stress or fatigue can cause someone to feel “down in the mouth.”
These feelings of sadness can run the gamut of helplessness, misery, grief, sorrow, anxiety and loss. However, these very normal feelings are usually temporary. They don't last very long and often decline in intensity in a very short period of time. This is not “depression” in its true, clinical form. When feelings of sadness last for longer that two weeks, it could very well be depression.
Symptoms of Depression in Teens
Symptoms of depression vary from person to person. Some of the trademark symptoms include fatigue, marked changes in eating habits and weight (either sudden loss or sudden gain), inability to concentrate, irritability, marked changes in sleeping habits (either too much or too little), loss of interest in activities that they once enjoyed, hopelessness, worthlessness, feelings of guilt and ideations of death and suicide. Some teens may cry easily or fly into a rage with little provocation. Stomachaches and headaches can also indicate depression.
Withdrawal from friends is a classic symptom of teen depression. If you teen suddenly stops wanting to spend time with their family and friends, it could mean that something is wrong. If a student's grades suddenly decline, this could also be an indicator. Basically, if you notice any negative sudden changes in your teen's behavior, then you should take a closer look at their overall behavior and talk with them to find out what is going on.
Causes of Teen Depression
As children mature, they are put under a great deal of stress. This, combined with all the hormonal changes and conflicts with parents as the child struggles to separate from the parents and become independent all contribute to feelings of sadness and even depression. Stressful or upsetting events can also cause depression, as can low self esteem and feelings of not having control over certain things in their lives. There are any number of factors that can cause a person to become depressed.
Chemical imbalance in the brain, brain injury, illness and chronic pain often lead to depression. Sometimes, the depression can seem to come from nowhere. One day your child is happy-go-lucky and the next he is a brooding, sullen lump on your couch. One day she is a straight A student with a full social calendar and the next, she is an isolated introvert who is doing good to pass at all. Depression can get out of hand in a very short time, so it is important to be aware of changes in your child and stay on top of them.
It is important to understand the most common risk factors for depression. This way, you can try to stay ahead of it, or at least be ready to seek help if you need it. The four main risk factors for depression are: 1) family history regarding depression. Depressive tendencies are often genetic, 2) long term illness or disability (physical or mental), 3) experiencing an upsetting event such as a trauma, death of a loved one, abuse, loss, divorce of parents being the target of a bully, or a breakup, and 4) difficulties at school, with friends, at work or at school.
Prevention of depression can go a long way in abating the symptoms. Drugs and alcohol should be avoided because these can trigger depression or make it worse. Encouraging your child to associate with positive minded people and helping them develop a strong support system with family members, friends, teachers and coaches will also help a great deal. Diet can play a role in depression as well. Encourage your teen to eat at least three regular meals a day and stress the importance of a healthy diet. Skipping meals can cause fluctuations in blood sugar which can affect mood. Sugar can also affect the mood, causing agitation or euphoria, then a “crash” into depression. Caffeine acts in a very similar manner to sugar and should be limited or avoided.
What you can Do
The best thing you can do to help your teen is to know him or her well enough to notice when changes begin to take place. When you notice the changes, talk. You don't have to launch right into the “I know you are depressed” speech, but a few questions about what is going on in their life can be very enlightening. Ask about friends, school, home, anything that affects your child.
Sometimes, getting kids engaged in an activity will help them open up and talk. I always have a foam football in the house with my three teenagers and we toss it back and forth while we talk. It is amazing how the kids will concentrate on throwing the ball and the words just tumble out. Some of our best conversations have been over that cheap little football.
If you feel that your child's depression could be harmful or goes on for more than a few weeks, they should see a doctor. There are many physical illnesses and conditions that can lead to depression and you want to rule those out. Also, getting your child the help and treatment that they need to overcome their depression is vital to their growth, maturity and success in life. We all want our children to be healthy and happy, mental health is just as important as physical health. So keep your eyes and ears open and stay tuned in to your teen so that you can act quickly if you see things go awry.
Stephanie Partridge: I am a mom, not just to my three terrific teenagers, but to the entire neighborhood! On any given weekend we may have as many as 9 or more kids (not including my three) staying over at our house – and they all call me Mom. LOL
I am currently pursuing a psychology degree so that I can counsel young people and incorporate therapy dogs into my practice. I believe that parenting is more than just raising kids, it is about raising adults who are productive critical thinkers. I believe in asking questions about Life's hard questions and finding the answers together.
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