As parents, the one thing we want to do is protect our children. We baby-proof our houses, snap our kids in car seats, and give them helmets to wear while riding their bikes. As they age, though, we find that protecting them from everything becomes impossible. No matter the level of care we show our children, parents generally cannot protect against mental health issues such as depression.
Depression affects about 11% of adolescents by age 18, according to the National Comorbidity Survey-Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). The symptoms of depression are sometimes obvious, sometimes not. If you suspect that your child is depressed, schedule an evaluation with a mental health professional. With the help of talk therapy and perhaps other treatments, depression can be managed and teens can flourish.
Depression leaves telltale signs and symptoms along its path. Eight of the most common in teens are:
- Change in mood above and beyond normal teenager mood swings: Look for unusual irritability and sadness or crying that becomes concerning.
- Drop in grades: Do not ignore academic problems! It can be a leading signal that something is wrong.
- Changes in friendships: Are you noticing less frequent talk about friends? Less time spent with friends? Spending time with new friends?
- Withdrawal and isolation: Is your teen hibernating in his or her room more than normal? This can be a sign that he or she isn’t coping well in the outside world.
- Loss of interest in activities: If your teen normally spends every day playing tennis or basketball, but now couldn’t care less about those pursuits, this may be a sign.
- Lack of motivation: Teens are not always known for having high motivation, but any changes for the worse should be noted.
- Family history of depression: Does someone else in your family have depression? Do you?
If you have noticed any of these signs, it may be time to talk to a mental health practitioner or school counselor. As much as we may want to parent it away, depression needs strategic attention and a plan for management.
For teens, management often includes talk therapy with a licensed professional. Often, just the idea of getting help and making an appointment create enough hope that a teen will feel somewhat better quickly. Over time, and with care, the therapist will assess for depression and suicide ideation and provide coping skills and management strategies for dealing with depressive symptoms.
It is not uncommon for parents to wonder about medication for depression. Medication is a private, family decision which should be made with the help of a medical doctor, preferably a psychiatrist who specializes in pediatrics. However, medication is only one part of the puzzle and is not right for every person. That decision should be made on an individual basis and with the help of professionals.
Other tools and management strategies may be helpful in treating depression in teens. In my own work with depressed teens, I often use a strategy of “untangling” problems. This strategy helps us determine what is going well in the teen’s life, what is not going well, and where the weak spots are. After we’ve untangled, we begin to work on tools and skills to handle depressive feelings and dark thoughts. No matter what, the first tool is always exercise. Aside from the physical health benefits, exercise floods the brain with endorphins and feel-good chemicals.
Then we collaborate on behaviors that make the teen feel better. This is an individual preference, but is necessary because teens feel empowered by being part of the process. Once we have a few known “feel-better behaviors,” we start incorporating more and more techniques to manage depressive symptoms.
Often, teens love the creative part of finding what works for them. Does the teen like to bake cupcakes or draw? Does the teen like to watch funny YouTube videos? Enlisting the teen’s preferences gives the teen a sense of control and empowerment over his or her mind.
The process of finding depression coping techniques takes time and effort, but with help, depression can be managed. Teen depression should be taken seriously and cautiously. If your teen has symptoms you believe look like depression, contact a professional for help.
Depression in Children and Adolescents Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression-in-children-and-adolescents/depression-in-children-and-adolescents_140864.pdf
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