Parent's Guide to Teen Depression
Recognizing the Signs and Helping Your Child
Teenagers face a host of pressures, from the changes of puberty to questions about who they are and where they fit in. With all this turmoil and uncertainty, it isn’t always easy to differentiate between depression and normal teenage growing pains. But teen depression goes beyond moodiness. It’s a serious health problem that impacts every aspect of a teen’s life. Fortunately, it’s treatable and parents can help. Your support can go a long way toward getting your teenager back on track.
What are the signs and symptoms of depression in teens?
Unlike adults, who have the ability to seek assistance on their own, teenagers rely on parents, teachers, or other caregivers to recognize their suffering and get them the help they need. So if you have an adolescent in your life, it’s important to learn what teen depression looks like and what to do if you spot the warning signs.
While it might seem that recognizing depression is easy, the signs aren’t always obvious. For one, teens with depression don’t necessarily appear sad. Irritability, anger, and agitation may be the most prominent symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of depression in teens
Is it depression or teenage “growing pains”?
A certain amount of moodiness and acting out is par for the course with teens. But persistent changes in personality, mood, or behavior are red flags of a deeper problem. If you’re unsure if your child is depressed or just “being a teenager,” consider how long the symptoms have been going on, how severe they are, and how different your child is acting from his or her usual self. Hormones and stress can explain the occasional bout of teenage angst—but not continuous and unrelenting unhappiness lethargy, or irritability.
Suicide warning signs in teenagers
Seriously depressed teens often think about, speak of, or make "attention-getting" attempts at suicide. But an alarming and increasing number of teenage suicide attempts are successful, so suicidal thoughts or behaviors should always be taken very seriously.
For the overwhelming majority of suicidal teens, depression or another psychological disorder plays a primary role. In depressed teens who also abuse alcohol or drugs, the risk of suicide is even greater. Because of the very real danger of suicide, teenagers who are depressed should be watched closely for any signs of suicidal thoughts or behavior.
Suicide warning signs to watch for
- Talking or joking about committing suicide
- Saying things like, “I’d be better off dead,” “I wish I could disappear forever,” or “There’s no way out.”
- Speaking positively about death or romanticizing dying (“If I died, people might love me more”)
- Writing stories and poems about death, dying, or suicide
- Engaging in reckless behavior or having a lot of accidents resulting in injury
- Giving away prized possessions
- Saying goodbye to friends and family as if for the last time
- Seeking out weapons, pills, or other ways to kill themselves
Get help for a suicidal teen
If you suspect that a teenager you know is suicidal, take immediate action! For 24-hour suicide prevention and support in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
To learn more about suicide risk factors, warning signs, and what to do in a crisis, read Suicide Prevention.
Don’t ignore the problem
Depression is very damaging when left untreated, so don’t wait and hope that worrisome symptoms will go away. If you suspect that your child is depressed, bring up your concerns in a loving, non-judgmental way. Even if you’re unsure that depression is the issue, the troublesome behaviors and emotions you’re seeing are signs of a problem that should be addressed.
Open up a dialogue by letting your teen know what specific signs of depression you’ve noticed and why they worry you. Then ask your child to share what he or she is going through—and be ready and willing to truly listen. Hold back from asking a lot of questions (teenagers don’t like to feel patronized or crowded), but make it clear that you’re ready and willing to provide whatever support they need.
Tips for communicating with a depressed teen
Focus on listening, not lecturing. Resist any urge to criticize or pass judgment once your teenager begins to talk. The important thing is that your child is communicating. You’ll do the most good by simply letting your teen know that you’re there for them, fully and unconditionally.
Be gentle but persistent. Don’t give up if they shut you out at first. Talking about depression can be very tough for teens. Even if they want to, they may have a hard time expressing what they’re feeling. Be respectful of your child’s comfort level while still emphasizing your concern and willingness to listen.
Acknowledge their feelings. Don’t try to talk your teen out of depression, even if their feelings or concerns appear silly or irrational to you. Well-meaning attempts to explain why “things aren’t that bad” will just come across as if you don’t take their emotions seriously. To make them feel understood and supported, simply acknowledging the pain and sadness they are experiencing can go a long way in making them feel understood and supported.
Trust your gut. If your teen claims nothing is wrong but has no explanation for what is causing the depressed behavior, you should trust your instincts. If your teen won’t open up to you, consider turning to a trusted third party: a school counselor, favorite teacher, or mental health professional. The important thing is to get them talking to someone.
Encourage social connection
Depressed teens tend to withdraw from their friends and the activities they used to enjoy. But isolation only makes depression worse, so do what you can to help your teen reconnect.
Make face time a priority. Set aside time each day to talk—time when you’re focused totally on your teen (no distractions or multi-tasking). The simple act of connecting face to face can play a big role in reducing your teen’s depression.
Combat social isolation. Do what you can to keep your teen connected to others. Encourage them to go out with friends or invite friends over. Participate in activities that involve other families and give your child an opportunity to meet and connect with other kids.
Get your teen involved. Suggest activities—such as sports, after-school clubs, or an art, dance, or music class—that take advantage of your teen’s interests and talents. While your teen may lack motivation and interest at first, as they reengage with the world, they should start to feel better and regain their enthusiasm.
Promote volunteerism. Doing things for others is a powerful antidepressant and self-esteem booster. Help your teen find a cause they’re interested in and that gives them a sense of purpose. If you volunteer with them, it can also be a good bonding experience.
Make physical health a priority
Physical and mental health are inextricably connected. Depression is exacerbated by inactivity, inadequate sleep, and poor nutrition. Unfortunately, teens are known for their unhealthy habits: staying up late, eating junk food, and spending hours up hours on their phones and devices. But as a parent, you can combat these behaviors by establishing a healthy, supportive home environment.
Get your teen moving! Exercise is absolutely essential to mental health, so get your teen active—whatever it takes. Ideally, teens should be getting at least an hour of physical activity a day, but it needn’t be boring or miserable. Think outside the box: walking the dog, dancing, shooting hoops, going for a hike, riding bikes, skateboarding—as long as they’re moving, it’s beneficial.
Set limits on screen time. Teens often go online to escape their problems, but excessive computer use only increases their isolation, making them more depressed. When screen time goes up, physical activity and face time with friends goes down. Both are a recipe for worsening symptoms.
Provide nutritious, balanced meals. Make sure your teen is getting the nutrition they need for optimum brain health and mood support: things like healthy fats, quality protein, and fresh produce. Eating a lot of sugary, starchy foods—the quick “pick me up” of many depressed teens—is not going to make the body or brain happy.
Encourage plenty of sleep. Teens need more sleep than adults to function optimally—up to 9-10 hours per night. Make sure your teen isn’t staying up until all hours at the expense of much-need, mood-supporting rest.
Know when to seek professional help
Support and healthy lifestyle changes can make a world of difference for depressed teens, but it’s not always enough. When depression is severe, don’t hesitate to seek professional help from a psychologist or psychiatrist. A mental health professional with advanced training and a strong background treating teens is the best bet for your child’s care.
Involve your child in treatment choices
When choosing a specialist or pursuing treatment options, always get your teen’s input. If you want your teen to be motivated and engaged in their treatment, don’t ignore their preferences or make unilateral decisions. No one therapist is a miracle worker, and no one treatment works for everyone. If your child feels uncomfortable or is just not ’connecting’ with the psychologist or psychiatrist, seek out a better fit.
Explore your options
Expect a discussion with the specialist you’ve chosen about depression treatment options for your son or daughter. Talk therapy is often a good initial treatment for mild to moderate cases of depression. Over the course of therapy, your teen’s depression may resolve. If it doesn’t, medication may be warranted.
Unfortunately, some parents feel pushed into choosing antidepressant medication over other treatments that may be cost-prohibitive or time-intensive. However, unless your child is acting out dangerously or at risk for suicide (in which case medication and/or constant observation may be necessary), you have time to carefully weigh your options before committing to any one treatment. In all cases, antidepressants are most effective when part of a broader treatment plan.
Medication comes with risks
Antidepressants were designed and tested on adults, so their impact on young, developing brains is not yet understood. Some researchers are concerned that exposure to drugs such as Prozac may interfere with normal brain development—particularly the way the brain manages stress and regulates emotion.
Antidepressants also come with risks and side effects of their own, including a number of safety concerns specific to children and young adults. They are also known to increase the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in some teenagers and young adults. Teens with bipolar disorder, a family history of bipolar disorder, or a history of previous suicide attempts are particularly vulnerable.
The risk of suicide is highest during the first two months of antidepressant treatment. Teenagers on antidepressants should be closely monitored for any sign that the depression is getting worse.
Teens on antidepressants: Red flags to watch out for
Call a doctor if you notice…
Take care of yourself (and the rest of the family)
As a parent dealing with teen depression, you may find yourself focusing all your energy and attention on your depressed child. Meanwhile, you may be neglecting your own needs and the needs of other family members. However, it’s extremely important that you continue to take care of yourself during this difficult time.
Above all, this means reaching out for much needed support. You can’t do everything on your own. Trying is only a recipe for burnout. As the saying goes: “It takes a village.” Enlist the help of family and friends. Having your own support system in place will help you stay healthy and positive as you work to help your teen.
Don’t bottle up your emotions. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, helpless, or angry. Reach out to friends, join a support group, or see a therapist of your own. Talking about how you’re feeling will help defuse the intensity.
Look after your health. The stress of your teen’s depression can affect your own moods and emotions, so support your health and well-being by eating right, getting enough sleep, and making time for things you enjoy.
Be open with the family. Don’t tiptoe around the issue of teen depression in an attempt to “protect” the other children. Kids know when something is wrong. When left in the dark, their imaginations will often jump to far worse conclusions. Be open about what is going on and invite your children to ask questions and share their feelings.
Remember the siblings. Depression in one child can cause stress or anxiety in other family members, so make sure “healthy” children are not ignored. Siblings may need special individual attention or professional help of their own to handle their feelings about the situation.
Avoid the blame game. It can be easy to blame yourself or another family member for your teen’s depression, but it only adds to an already stressful situation. Furthermore, depression is normally caused by a number of factors, so it’s unlikely—except in the case of abuse or neglect—that any loved one is “responsible.”
More help for depression
Resources and references
General information about teen depression
Depression – Breaks down the different types of depression in teenagers, as well as the symptoms and remedies. (TeensHealth)
Depression in Boys – While teen depression is more prevalent in girls, teenage boys have their own special risk factors and warning signs. This article delves deeper into male teen depression. (Psychology Today)
Depression in Girls – With society and hormonal changes wreaking havoc, girls need extra care in the teen years. Learn what parents can do. (Psychology Today)
Teen depression and suicide
About Teen Suicide – Discusses teen suicide statistics, risk factors, warnings signs, and how to get help. Also find coping tips for those who have lost a child to suicide. (TeensHealth)
Teen Suicide: What Parents Need to Know – Learn about the risk factors, warning signs, and the steps you can take to protect your teen from suicide. (MayoClinic)
Teenage depression and violence
Warning Signs of Youth Violence – Learn why some teenagers turn violent, what the warning signs are, and who is at risk. (American Psychological Association)
Depression and Violence in Teens – Explores the problem of teen violence, the possible link to depression, and what parents can do about it. (HealthDay)
Treatment for teen depression
Treatment of Children with Mental Illness – Answers to frequently asked questions about the treatment of mental disorders in children, including depression. (National Institute of Mental Health)
Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder – Series of articles on when to seek help for your child and where to find it. (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry)
Antidepressants for teens
Antidepressant Medications for Children and Adolescents: Information for Parents and Caregivers – Fact sheet from the federal government on medication for children and teens. (National Institute of Mental Health)
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