Teens and Depression

teen girl looking sad
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Amy glanced up from folding towels and T-shirts as her daughter shuffled through the kitchen. She sensed the sadness that weighed her daughter down, drooping her shoulders and erasing her usually easy smile. Amy's heart sank. It seemed only a short time ago her daughter's laughter and enthusiasm reverberated through the house. Now she was quiet, withdrawn and moody.

As a parent going about daily life, you might also be watching and asking: Is my teen OK? We all want our children to meet life's challenges with strength and vigor, so it's painful to watch them tumble into hopelessness or depression. How do we stand with our teens through this adolescent season of change and emotional upheaval?

Is this really normal?

Walt Mueller, in his book The Space Between, calls the adolescent years "the earthquake of adolescence." It definitely feels that way. We are shaken. Our teens are shaken. And this is a common experience.

Hormones cause brain and body changes that affect an adolescent's sleep, eating habits, emotions and social well-being. They're constantly adjusting to the fluctuations. They want to be adults, but getting there feels downright awkward. They often push against parental requests or expectations with defiance or tears — and no one knows which to expect.

Questions fill their minds and may remain unspoken: Who am I? What am I supposed to do with my life? Am I liked? And it doesn't matter if their self-perception is inaccurate. It feels real to them.

This is all normal — a part of the developmental process — and yet it's so very difficult for them and for us.

What does depression look like?

With all these changes, our teens may feel physically, emotionally or spiritually overwhelmed. In light of recent studies that show 28 percent of adolescents will experience some kind of depression, parents can't help but wonder what depression looks like in the life of a teen.

At one end of the spectrum, depression can become a medical illness that severely limits daily functioning, lasts for months or possibly years and requires professional intervention. At the other end of the spectrum, a teen may temporarily "feel blue" in the midst of certain events and developmental changes.

At first glance, a teen's depression, including its severity, may not be clear. A few signs to watch for include:

  • agitation or restlessness
  • changes in appetite
  • fatigue or difficulty sleeping
  • loss of interest in activities
  • isolating behavior
  • acting out or defiance
  • changes in school performance
  • feeling sad, worthless, hopeless or helpless

How can we show love?

When our actions express support and compassion, our teens are better equipped to handle the emotional challenges of adolescence. Communicating the following messages will help affirm our teens so they know they are not alone.

I want to hear what you think and feel. 

Create a pleasant home environment with open and safe communication. Make sure your teen knows you're available and ready to listen. Take time to hear her out so she can feel confident that she'll receive your attention and compassion when she's ready to share the tough stuff.

I am here — standing with you and for you.

Teach and model healthy coping responses, including purposeful time with God. Encourage balance, rest, reasonable downtime and nutritious food. Your example will help your teen believe you're ready to go through this challenging season with him.

I enjoy who you are now and who you are becoming.

Help your teen identify personal strengths and character qualities, then offer verbal encouragement. Let her take increasing leadership in designing her schedule, and express your interest in what interests her. Invite dialogue, then listen as she expresses her ideas. Your attentiveness will help your teen appreciate who God created her to be.

As you help your teen walk through the ups and downs of adolescence, remember that depression is not an indictment of bad parenting. Much of the turmoil of the teen years is beyond a parent's control, and even teens of loving, attentive parents fall into depression. If you are dealing with a depressed teen, you don't need to struggle on your own. You can email Focus on the Family at help@focusonthefamily.com or call 855-771-HELP from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) to find the resources you need.

Jan Kern is a life and leadership coach who works with at-risk youth alongside her husband, Tom. She is the author of several books for teens.
This article first appeared on ThrivingFamily.com in the Teen department. If this article had value for you, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.
Copyright © 2011 by Jan Kern. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: Teens and Suicide

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