What to look for and how to help
The teen years can be difficult for your child — kids face pressure to do well in school, they’re being influenced positively and negatively by their peers, their bodies are changing significantly and their hormones are running rampant. These years are full of transitions. With all of these changes, it’s no surprise that some teens become depressed.
"While most teenagers are moody from time to time, depression in teens is different," says Dr. Stella M. Cruz, a pediatrician at Geisinger Dallas. "A change in mood might not last just part of a day or a few days; it can last a few weeks or months."
Importantly, some depressed teens act irritable or agitated, rather than sad.
What parents should watch for
Depression can make everyday activities more difficult for teens. They might lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, like sports or music. They may also sleep more than usual, and you might notice that their eating habits change.
Other signs of depression in your teen are:
- Difficulty focusing
- Lack of motivation
- Decline in school performance
- Headaches or other aches
- Memory loss or trouble making decisions
Depression can also manifest itself in rebellious behavior such as taking drugs or drinking alcohol.
Because there are many signs and symptoms of depression and teens don’t always exhibit the same behavior, it can be difficult to tell if your child is being a "typical teen" or if he or she is depressed.
What parents can do
"If you’re not sure if your teen’s change in behavior is depression, it can be helpful to write down the signs and think about how long he or she’s been showing these signs," says Dr. Cruz. "If your teen has been experiencing symptoms most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks, he or she may be suffering from depression."
The change in behavior and attitudes can also help you determine if your teen is depressed. For example, if your teen exhibits wildly different behavior than normal, he or she might be depressed.
And if your teen talks about suicide or death and dying, it’s critical to get help immediately.
"Even if your teen is joking about dying, it’s a warning sign," says Dr. Cruz. "You can never be cautious enough about something as serious as suicide."
If you believe your teen is suffering from depression, the first step in helping them get better is to talk to them. Gently point out that you’ve noticed their change in behavior and ask them how they’re feeling.
Treating depression in teenagers
Just like depression in adults, depression in teens doesn’t just pass, like a temporary mood swing. However, it can be overcome through treatment.
After talking with your teen to gauge how they’re feeling, decide if it’s necessary to seek help from a doctor or mental health professional.
"Talking to your pediatrician, the school nurse or counselor is a good starting point," says Dr. Cruz.
Your teen’s doctor may first check to see if another medical condition could be causing depression. They may refer your teen to a psychologist or counselor to enroll in talk therapy as treatment.
"Talk therapy, or cognitive behavior therapy, can help your teen express their emotions and learn how to handle the stress of peer pressure, school and family, and learn how to think more positively," says Dr. Cruz.
The doctor may also prescribe antidepressants to treat depression or a combination of talk therapy and medication. It’s important to know that antidepressants can increase suicidal thoughts or behavior in teens, especially during the first several weeks of treatment.
"The good news is that there are many treatment options for teens experiencing depression," adds Dr. Cruz. "Your child may need to try different options before finding the right fit for them, which is why it's critical for parents and loved ones to be patient, persistent and supportive."
Request an appointment for your child with Stella Cruz, MD