How to Recognize the Warning Signs of Depression in Teenagers

If you’re the parent of a teenager, then you’ve probably noticed that your child has become moodier than usual. They may stop wanting to spend as much time with you, choosing instead to spend time with their friends. They may have even missed curfew or come home smelling of beer occasionally.

All of these things are normal for kids to go through in their teenage years. But how can you tell when it’s something more serious, like depression?

Here’s how you, as a parent, can recognize the warning signs of depression in teenagers, and how you can help your teen if they’re depressed.

What is depression?

Depression is a serious mental illness that affects around 280 million people across the globe. It can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity. Depression can cause feelings of sadness and hopelessness for weeks, months, or even years at a time.

Some symptoms of depression include:

  • Feeling down, sad, or empty most of the time
  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Feeling tired or having little or no energy
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Sleeping too much (hypersomnia) or not enough (insomnia)
  • Changes in appetite (that could result in weight gain or weight loss)
  • Recurrent thoughts about death, suicide, or self-harm

Depression is more common in teens than in any other age group. There are many factors that account for this. Teens may be more likely to have depression because they are going through many changes and challenges that adults go through, but they also have a harder time coping with these changes. 

Depression in teens can result from low self-esteem, bullying, family problems, genetic predisposition, hormonal changes, and many other factors. There is no single cause that leads to depression in any age group.

Warning signs that your teenager is depressed

Depression can be hard to identify in teens because teen depression often looks very different from adult depression. Although the core symptoms are the same, they can present differently in young people. 

That means that parents need to be aware of the warning signs of depression in teenagers, specifically, to be able to catch them.

Here are 6 warning signs of depression in teens to watch out for.

They’re socially withdrawn.

It’s normal for teens to pull away from their parents. In this stage of life, their peers are the center of their universe, and establishing their own identity (away from their parents) is one of their most important developmental tasks.

Although pulling away from parents is a normal part of the teenage years, being completely socially withdrawn isn’t. If your teen doesn’t seem to have any friends, and is spending most of their time alone, then this may be a sign of depression. 

This is especially important to pay attention to if your child used to be social, but their behavior has changed recently.

Their grades are worsening.

Depression may cause your teen’s grades to slip. Of course, bad grades aren’t always a sign of depression — it could be that their classes have recently become more challenging. 

But if your child has always been successful academically, and their grades seem to be slipping for no reason, then it could be a sign of depression. It’s also important to notice if your child seems suddenly uninterested in school, when before they had more motivation.

They’re too hard on themselves.

Teens with depression often have thoughts and feelings of excessive guilt, shame, and worthlessness. Does your teen tend to blame themselves, even when it’s not their fault? Do they constantly talk negatively about themselves? Then this could be a sign of depression.

Poor self-esteem is a risk factor for depression, so watch for this sign whether or not you think your teen is depressed.

They have angry outbursts.

One of the core symptoms of depression is having a low, sad, or empty mood almost all of the time. What you may not know is that in teens, this could show up as an irritable mood.

All teens are moody and go through emotional ups and downs. But if your teen seems to be irritable all of the time, then it could be a sign of depression. Some teens with depression even have angry or violent outbursts. We don’t tend to think of depressed people as being angry, so their depression could fall through the cracks if you don’t recognize it.

They’re using drugs or alcohol.

To be clear, substance use disorder is an entirely different mental health condition from depression. But the two are deeply interlinked; people with substance use disorder are more likely to have depression, and vice versa.

If your teen often comes home smelling of alcohol or seems high, then they could have depression on top of their addiction. 

Most teens experiment with drugs and alcohol, so occasional use may not be indicative of any mental health problems. But if you notice increasing or constant use, then your teen may be trying to cope with their emotional struggles with substances.

Talking or “joking” about suicide

Teens who are depressed may not directly tell you that they are having suicidal thoughts. But any remarks about death and suicide, even if they’re said as a “joke,” should be taken seriously. Pay attention, as well, to whether or not your teen seems to be obsessed with media — movies, songs, and books — that center around death or suicide.

Some passive suicidal remarks your teen might make include statements like, “The world would be better off if I were dead,” or “I hope I never wake up.” Even if these things are said in anger or as a joke, they may reflect deeper truths.

If you think your teen is at risk of harming themselves, call 9-8-8 or take them to your nearest emergency room.

How parents can help troubled teens who are depressed

It can be a frightening experience to suspect that your teen is going through depression. Many parents of depressed teens feel helpless, and even more so if their teen is withdrawing from them. 

But as their parent, there are many things you can do to support them and help them recover from depression. Depression is a highly treatable illness, and with the right interventions, your teen can get better.

The first and most important thing you can do is to listen to your child without judgment. Don’t dismiss their feelings as a “phase.” Ask them open questions to explore how they feel and why. 

When you’re listening, refrain from giving unsolicited advice. Advice may not be what your teen needs right now — they might just need a compassionate listening ear.

The next step is to get your teen professional support for depression. Depression doesn’t go away on its own, and may even get worse; your teen needs treatment to be able to recover. 

TMS therapy for teen depression

The most common types of treatment for teen depression are psychotherapy (talk therapy) and antidepressant medication. These treatments are effective for many teens, but not everyone benefits.

For teens who have found no benefit in these traditional treatment methods, or who don’t want to continue taking medications due to the side effects, then transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) may be able to help.

TMS is a non-invasive brain stimulation therapy. It uses electromagnetic technology to stimulate the areas of your teen’s brain that are affected by depression. Research has found that it is a depression treatment method that is safe, effective, and largely free of side effects. It’s even FDA-approved for treatment-resistant depression in adults.

Although TMS therapy is still considered “off-label” for this age group, multiple studies have found that it’s effective in helping teens to recover from depression.

If your teen is struggling with depression, then TMS may be able to help them. 

Southern Colorado TMS is the region’s premier provider of TMS services. Our team can determine whether your teen meets the medical necessity criteria to receive TMS, and help you talk to your teen about what TMS is and how it can help them. 

We also provide life skills classes, acupuncture or acupressure, and biofeedback sessions at no added cost to you. We recommend that, if your teen has a therapist they’re connected to, that they continue seeing them while receiving TMS. TMS tends to work best as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

To get started, get in touch with our admissions team to schedule a free mental health assessment.

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