Adolescence is a difficult and critical stage in human development. But when your teen exhibits signs beyond typical behavior, it may be time for concern. "Often, teens become depressed when there is no permission within their family to directly express powerful feelings," says Dr. Fran Walfish, psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent." Recognizing the signs and opening the lines of communication can help your teen cope.
Although teenagers experience irritability and mood changes as part of adolescence, the secret to recognizing signs of depression is watching for negative emotions that seem permanent, says Dr. John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of "The Available Parent." "I encourage parents to look for sudden or dramatic change in their teenager," says Duffy. Whether academic or social influences are involved, a teen who remains solemn and withdrawn for an extended period of time could be exhibiting symptoms of depression.
Teens often want privacy and solitude, but if your teen seems to separate from others, it should raise a flag for parents. "Perhaps the clearest sign I get takes place when kids disengage from parents and family," says Duffy. "This is a tough read for parents, as this can take place typically in adolescence. But if the shift is rather sudden, and a parent can extract virtually nothing from their teen, I take notice of that."
A key part of adolescence is engagement in sports, school activities and social events. If your teen begins to withdraw from activities he previously enjoyed, it may be a sign of depression. "Quitting a passion may be an indicator that your teen is emotionally struggling," says Russell Hyken, psychotherapist and author of "The Parent Playbook." "Contact the school and talk to his teachers if you have a concern," Hyken suggests. "If these professionals acknowledge behavioral changes, it may be time to seek outside professional assistance."
A teenager's routine can be exhausting, but if your child has excessive fatigue and a lack of energy every day, it should be concerning, says Walfish. A typical teenager may want to sleep in on the weekends, but if your child is sleeping at every available moment, professional help may be necessary. "If you suspect something is going on with your teenager, there's a high probability that your hunch is correct," says Walfish. "Follow your intuition and have a straight talk with your kids."
School refusal is becoming more common in teenagers, says Duffy, but more so in teenagers suffering from depression. "I'm finding that this full withdrawal is becoming ever more common in depressed and anxious teens," he says. "Their grades may drop precipitously or they seem to disengage academically." Consulting with teachers and school administrators to monitor your child's progress and behavior may provide needed help for your teen.
Trying to fit in socially can cause an emotional roller coaster for many teens. When this pressure heightens, feelings of worthlessness or excessive inappropriate guilt can signal your teen may be depressed, says Walfish. "The key is to have open pathways for communication between parents and kids," she says. "Sometimes it helps the teen for their parents to encourage and invite them to tell about their angry feelings, disappointments and letdowns."
It's not unusual for a teen to resist authority, but if your teen refuses to comply with requests in a reasonable amount of time, it could be a sign of depression, says Hyken. "A reasonable amount of time is a minute or less," he says. "Your child should respond to most requests almost instantaneously, especially simple ones. Don't expect your teen to always do what you ask, but she should acknowledge your comments and provide some type of acceptable response."
Recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, a specific plan for committing suicide or a suicide attempt may be the most extreme signs, and also the most serious, says Walfish. Seek the help of a professional and admit that you may not be able to help your teen on your own. "Parents must be hyper vigilant with self-examination," she says. "They must have the courage to take an honest look within, open their eyes and face the truth about themselves and their kids."