If you’re a parent, you might occasionally be stressed about some of your teen’s behaviors. Maybe they sleep in too late. Maybe sometimes they’re grouchy or aren’t interested in family activities. Some of that behavior is totally normal—and it’s easy to feel comforted knowing most teens grow out of it—but that’s not always the case.
Quite a few teen behaviors that most parents consider ‘normal’ could actually be signs of depression or another mental illness. That perception of what’s normal could make it hard to know when to talk to your teen, seek out a diagnosis, and look for supporting resources.
At Safe and Sober, we know 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’s why parents need to know when behaviors are worrisome, how it can affect your teen, and what you can do to help.
First, let’s clarify what depression in teenagers looks like.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
“Start by saying something along the lines of ‘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’re seeing questionable behaviors in your child, take the time to ask about it without judgment,” said Vega. “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.”
Depression is a struggle for anyone. As a parent, you cannot protect your child from this illness, even if you do everything right. Depression can impact anyone.
You can’t prevent this illness from occurring in your teen, but you can help your child get the help he or she needs 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.