The teen years can be a challenge for both teens and parents. The moodiness that often accompanies teens' hormone changes, power struggles, school and peer stress, and emerging independence can be difficult to navigate.
But what if that moodiness is something more? When does normal teen angst cross the line into depression? What signs can parents watch for, and how can they intervene when necessary?
Teen depression is a very real phenomenon. According to a report published by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “about 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18.” The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAM) says “about 1 in 5 teens will experience depression at some point” during their adolescent years.
In general, parents should watch for symptoms of depression as published by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM):
Parents should also be aware, however, that signs of depression in children and adolescents can be more diffuse and difficult to recognize. For example, NIMH says “children who are depressed may complain of feeling sick, refuse to go to school, cling to a parent or caregiver, or worry excessively that a parent may die. Older children and teens may sulk, get into trouble at school, be negative or grouchy, or feel misunderstood.” NAMI says “grade-school children are more likely to complain of aches and pains.” Teens may “become aggressive, abuse drugs or alcohol, do poorly in school, or run away.”
So, how can a parent know when a child needs help? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says, in general, “when these feeling last for a short period of time, it may be a case of the blues. But when such feelings last for more than two weeks,” and interfere with daily activities, “such as taking care of family, spending time with friends, or going to work or school,” it could be something more.
In general, depressive episodes in children and adolescents can last from a few months to a few years. “When children are experiencing an episode, they may struggle at school, have impaired relationships with their friends and family, internalize their feelings, and even have an increased risk for suicide,” says NAMI.
Seek medical help if you suspect your child or teen is struggling with depression. Early intervention is key to limiting future negative and debilitating effects such as self-harm or suicide. There are many treatments available, and a doctor will help you and your family determine the right option. If you believe your child is in imminent danger of hurting him- or herself, call 911 immediately.
There is much you can do to provide support and guidance to your child during this difficult time. NAMI suggests helping your child stick to the treatment plan, talking openly about his or her feelings, and cautioning your child about the negative effects of self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
It's also important to care for yourself and the rest of your family with a healthy lifestyle. Most importantly, learn more about depression, and watch for warning signs. Below is a list of additional resources for you and your family.
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