Body & Fitness

Teen depression: How to spot the signs and how to help

How to recognise when your child is going through something serious.

For many teenagers, being moody and surly is their default setting, and we tend to say, “Oh, it’s their hormones.” But what seems to be typical teen behaviour could be depression, which is a very serious problem that needs help.

The signs of depression can be very different in teenagers than in adults, so it pays to know what to look for.

• Irritability. Unlike adults, teens are more likely to appear irritable than sad when they’re depressed. They can seem hostile or agitated, be easily frustrated and explode over the smallest thing.

• Extra sensitivity to criticism. Depressed teenagers may feel like they’re worthless, so they may overreact to any criticism or anything they see as failure.

• Changes in social behaviour. Adults with depression tend to become more isolated. Although this is often the case with teenagers, depressed teens may keep up some friendships, but could start hanging out with a different crowd and pull away from family life.

Other symptoms often seen in depressed teens include:

• Tearfulness

• Loss of interest in activities, especially things they have previously enjoyed

• Changes in eating and sleeping habits

• Constant tiredness and lack of energy

• Difficulty concentrating

• Looking at everything negatively

• Low self-esteem

• Feelings of guilt

• A sense that the future is bleak

• Frequent complaints of unexplained body aches and pains

• Neglected appearance

• Increased conflict with other family members. It can be difficult to tell the difference between normal teenage behaviour and depression. Consider how long these symptoms have been present, how severe they are and how different they are acting to their usual self.

Sometimes depression can manifest as unsuitable behaviour, including:

• Problems at school, such as a drop in marks, poor attendance or conflicts with teachers and other students.

• Drug and alcohol abuse. Often this is an attempt to self-medicate.

• Internet addiction. They can feel that being online – often playing games – helps to them to escape their problems.

• Violent outbursts. Pent-up feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness can lead to explosions of rage.

• Reckless behaviour. They may drink to excess, drive recklessly or have unsafe sex.

• Self-harming. For some teens, practices like cutting themselves can be a way of getting relief from their feelings.

• Suicidal behaviour. They may mean it when they say things such as, “I’d be better off dead.”

If you suspect your teenager could be depressed, the first step is to ask if they are okay and let them know you are concerned. Don’t bombard them with questions but tell them you are there for them and they can talk to you about anything. If they find it hard to talk to you, suggest another adult whom they could open up to. If they shut you out at first, be persistent but gentle.

Don’t be judgmental, dismiss their feelings or lecture them. Offer to help them work through what is going on, and to find a professional who can assist them. Seek immediate help if their symptoms become severe or you suspect they are suicidal.

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