Teens & Depression

Depression–or feeling sad, frustrated, and hopeless about life, accompanied by loss of pleasure in most activities and disturbances in sleep, appetite, concentration, and energy–is one of the most common psychological problems among adolescents. According to previous research done at the American Psychiatric Association in 2013, 20 to 50 percent of U.S. teenagers experience mild to moderate feelings of depression, but bounce back after a short time. What’s even more worrisome is the 15 to 20 percent of teens who have had one or more major depressive episodes. That rate is comparable to that of adults! About 5 percent of teens are chronically depressed–gloomy and self-critical for many months and sometimes years.  

Many parents wonder what causes depression. I’ve heard many parents express some of the following questions about depression:  Is it real? What causes it? Is it genetics? Is it something happening at school? Puberty? Is it my fault?

There is so much that can and needs to be talked about concerning depression and other mental illnesses. There have been thousands of research papers, blogs, videos, books, etc. that have provided information. This article focuses on some factors that are specifically related to adolescent depression; when we know what’s contributing to it, we may be able to avoid or manage it.  We’ll also talk about how we can help as parents when these factors do come into play in our teen’s lives. 

First of all, there is no one specific recipe that produces depression in your teen. The mix of biological and environmental factors leading to depression varies from one person to the next. Research has shown that pubertal hormone changes alone rarely trigger depression. What seems to sensitize the brain to react more strongly to stressful situations are genetic and hormonal risk factors (Natsuaki, Samuels, & Leve, 2014). 

Although depression runs in families, depressed or otherwise stressed parents often show maladaptive parenting skills. Because of this, their child’s attachment, emotional self-regulation, and self-esteem may be impaired. This brings serious consequences for cognitive and social skills in the teen (Yap, Allen & Ladoucceur, 2008). In a vulnerable teen, numerous negative life events may spark depression–for example, failing at something important, parental divorce, the end of a close friendship or romantic partnership, victimization through bullying or other abusive experiences. 

While it’s good to know what may be bringing the depression into your child’s mind, you can’t control everything. Many parents disregard their child’s depression or misinterpret it as just a passing phase. As a result, the majority of depressed teens don’t receive the support, love or treatment that they need. 

How to Communicate with a Depressed Teen

Focus on listening. Parenting itself brings urges to want to control or criticize our teens, especially if we don’t understand where they’re coming from. Resist any urge to criticize or judge once your teenager opens up to you. Give yourself a high five because your teenager is communicating with you! You’ll do the most good by just letting them know that you’re there for them–no matter what. 

Be gentle, but persistent. Many teens tend to shut out their parents, especially when it comes to something so sensitive as their depressive feelings. Talking about it can be very hard for them. And even when they are ready to talk about it, they can still have a hard time communicating what they’re feeling. Try to be respectful of their comfort level, but make sure you’re still emphasizing your concern while being willing to listen. 

Acknowledge their feelings. Don’t try to talk them out of their sad feelings, even if they don’t make sense to you. Don’t push those feelings off to the side and try to replace them with happier feelings or try to explain why things really aren’t that bad, in your mind. Acknowledging their pain and being sympathetic will truly go a long way with your teen. 

Depression is very damaging when left untreated, so don’t wait and hope that worrisome symptoms will go away. If you suspect that your teen is depressed, bring up your concerns in a loving, non-judgemental way. Even if you don’t think they’re depressed, the troublesome behaviors or emotions that they’re showing should be addressed. 

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