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A Parent’s Guide to Teen Depression

A Parent’s Guide to Teen Depression

How an illness can affect brain development, teen behavior, and substance abuse

Parents may be perturbed at certain teen behaviors (sleeping in too late, grouchy attitude, disinterest in family activities, etc.) but they find solace thinking at least their teen will grow out of it. However, that is not always the case. Sadly, quite a few teen behaviors that parents have come to consider ‘normal’ are actually indicative of depression or other mental illness. This makes it incredibly difficult to diagnose and may follow them for some time before anyone realizes. Safe and Sober knows that mental health is a serious issue, especially in teens. It can negatively impact the brain and it can also contribute to future drug and alcohol abuse. That is why parents need to know when teen behaviors are worrisome, how it can affect your teen, and what you can do to help.

First, lets clarify what depression is and address some questions you may have.

What is depression?

The Facts.

  • Depression is an illness that impacts 19 million Americans a year
  • Depression can run in a family’s history
  • Depression can be classified by a chemical imbalance in the brain
  • Symptoms must last at least two weeks for a diagnosis of depression
  • Depression can strike at any time
  • On average, the illness first appears during the late teens to mid-20s
  • Women are more likely than men to experience depression

What Depression is not

The Myths.

  • Depression is not a choice
  • Depression is not just a bad mood
  • Depression is not likely to go away on its own

Expert Opinion

Brian Vega offered his expertise on the subject.
Brian is a National Board Certified, Licensed Professional Counselor who is certified in Civil and Family Mediation. He has been an instructor in the graduate Counseling Program at Missouri State University, a high school counselor, a middle school counselor, and has facilitated groups for parenting, the juvenile system, grief, and LGBT issues.

Vega explains teen depression by first explaining the symptoms.

“Some of the signs of depression in teens are fairly well-known: feeling sad, hopeless or worthless; frequent thoughts of death, dying, or suicide; and withdrawing from family and friends.  Others, however, are not easily identifiable as symptoms of depression.  Some of these include irritability; changes in eating and sleeping habits; fatigue or lethargy; inability to focus/concentrate; stomach problems or headaches; poor hygiene; and acting-out behaviors,” Vega said.

Vega explains that some parents do notice symptoms but treat them out of context. For example, a teen suffering from depression has difficulty concentrating and a parent may suggest ADD medication. While this is beneficial for the teen and their academics, it does not minimize the illness they are living with.

Depression and the Brain

Living with depression is an everyday struggle that can leave an everlasting impact. Vega explains the connection between depression and brain development in youth.

“The brain is the control center of the nervous system.  Research has shown that long periods of depression can shrink important parts of the brain; cause brain inflammation; and can change the connective pathways of neurons.  The result of these changes leads to memory impairment, inability to focus, and difficulties with mood/emotional regulation.  The production and regulation of hormones is also a brain function.  Changes in the balance of hormones can sometimes cause or trigger depression.  Additionally, when people experience trauma as children, it can change the functioning of the brain, making them more susceptible to depression for many years,” Vega explained.

Depression and Substance Abuse

Depression impacts more than an individual’s mood. Poor brain development is just one side-effect to worry about. Vega explains how teens with depression may turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their illness.

The relationship between depression/mental illness and substance abuse is bi-directional: people who are depressed or suffering from mental illness are more likely to abuse substances, and substance abusers are more likely to suffer from depression and other mental illness. For teens experiencing depression, there are two very inconvenient truths: depression is extremely painful; and drugs and alcohol very quickly and effectively lift or change one’s mood.  Many teenagers experiment with drugs.  When a depressed teenager experiments with drugs, however, they receive the normal high that others experience, but they also get a temporary relief from significant suffering.  Even if they are not purposely using the substance to “treat” the depression, the positive effects and reinforcement depressed teens receive from drug-use is a strong motivator to use again.  Some teens have trouble “connecting the dots” and aren’t even aware that they are turning to substances to alleviate their depression.  All they know is that it makes them feel better,” Vega said.

Depression and a Parent’s Role

As a parent, your role is both easy and challenging. Vega says that the most important thing a parent can do is listen to their teen and validate their feelings. Your job is to fully understand.

“Tell me more about that and help me understand what you are thinking and feeling”

This is difficult for parents because it requires a certain amount of separation. Remember this is not about you, your parenting decisions, or anything you may have done wrong. It is about a neurochemical imbalance. If you think your child is exhibiting warning signs, Vega recommends what to do next.

“If you are seeing questionable behaviors in your child, take the time to ask about it without judgment.  Comments like I’ve noticed that you’ve stopped hanging out with your friends on the weekends; I’ve noticed that you’re not sleeping very much; or I’ve noticed that you’re losing weight are much more productive than questions or accusations.  The second most important thing you can do is get professional help.  That can mean starting with your family doctor, or making an appointment with a counselor,” Vega advised.

Depression is a struggle for anyone. As a parent, you cannot protect your child from this illness. You could do everything right, but depression can impact anyone. This is not your fault. While parents cannot prevent this illness from occurring, they can help their child get the help they need and provide important emotional support. Remember, look for the warning signs, have an open dialogue about feelings and changes in behavior, and seek out professional help. Most importantly, be there for your teen. They need you.

Ciera DuBan
1 Comment
  • Rosalia
    Posted at 00:21h, 19 June Reply

    This information is so timely and informative. There has been depression in my family ever since I was a child. Alcoholism as well, from my parents. I too suffered depression for 3 years.
    I went through a divorce a few years back and I noticed some behaviors in my son that lead me to believe he suffers the illness himself. I feel helpless because he decided to live with his dad. I lost contact for a few years. He is now responding from time to time, but it’s hard to help him this way. I remarried and live in Spain, he lives in St. Louis. Trying to convince him to at least visit, so I can help him somehow , but he’s isolating himself. He confessed that he drinks and does drugs and gets involved with older men. Don’t know what to do . Is there any guidance I can obtain from you?

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