From the moment children start Middle or Secondary School, they encounter a whole new world. Not only are they the youngest ones instead of the seniors in their school community, they gain independence, ‘free’ access to the internet and social media, a changing body, crazy hormones and a rapidly changing brain that is exploding with new neurological connections.
With all this turmoil and uncertainty, from the changes of puberty to questions about who they are and where they fit in, it isn’t always easy to differentiate between normal teenage growing pains and depression. But teen depression goes beyond moodiness. It’s a serious health problem that impacts every aspect of a teen’s life. Fortunately, it’s treatable and parents can help. Your love, guidance, and support can go a long way toward helping your teen overcome depression and get their life back on track.
The natural process of separation begins in early adolescence; this is when parents see that their teen begins to be embarrassed by them and spends more and more time with friends and less time with the family. At this stage they might be short-tempered and get angry easily when they feel they do not have enough distance or privacy. They spend hours on end on the computer or locked in their room and get defensive when asked what they are doing or when they come to spend time with you. This type of behaviour is normal. Teenagers need to naturally separate in order to gain their independence in early adulthood and often react defensively in order to attain this goal. During this time, you should be able to see that even though your teenager may cringe at spending quality time with the family, they are still able to enjoy time with friends and engage in healthy social and extracurricular activities outside of the home. If you see that this is not the case and your teen is chronically disconnected, angry and sad, this is when the behaviour becomes abnormal and caution is required.
Big drama is also part of the teenage years. It’s a phase of new experiences, and what may seem like a small thing to an adult may be a big deal for a teenager experiencing it for the first time. Teens may be distraught when they are having difficulty with girlfriends/boyfriends or when fighting with a friend, when they do not do well on a test or even for not having the right thing to wear to school one day.
Then there is the impact of social media and the fear of missing out (called FOMO). This social anxiety is characterized by a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing. Especially in teenage years, the peer group gets more and more important as they are the people our teens are going to spend their future with. As romantic partners, friends, collegeas etc. With the overwhelming presence of social media, being unconnected sometimes doesn’t seem like an option anymore.
On top of all these changes, feelings and experiences, sleep is another thing that goes a bit wonky during adolescence. The biological clock of an adolescent shifts forward, which makes them more alert instead of sleepy come evening. Melatonin, secreted in evening to cause sleepiness is secreted at a later time in the evening than in children and adults. And watching TV, gaming or staying busy on your phone adds to the wakefulness due to screen light exposure. In the morning, when children and adults are awake and ready for the day, teenagers still have elevated melatonin levels and often feel sleepy and groggy as a result. Getting enough sleep (9-10 hours for teenagers) is one of the most powerful ways we can protect ourselves against depression. The structures in the brain that support the most powerful antidepressant, serotonin, are built and re-built between the sixth and the eighth hour of sleep. So, even if teenagers try to get a healthy amount of sleep, their bodies may be working against them.
Finally, and specifically for expat families, Third Culture Kids (kids that move internationally) have an additional issue to deal with. With each international move, they go through a process similar to grieving. Saying goodbye to locations and people is not often recognized as a process that adds to depressed feelings. And we usually don’t develop rituals that help, like there are when we say goodbye to a loved one. Each international move can add to unresolved grief, especially in teenage years, when not dealt with in a proactive and understanding way.
Teenagers are often oversensitive and self-conscious and have not developed adequate coping tools to appropriately deal with events such as these mentioned above. And though they start looking, talking and behaving more and more like adults, their brains are not there yet. Especially their ability to reason, see ‘greys’ between back and white and their emotional inhibition are still developing till up in their twenties. Therefore you may notice that your teenager experiences episodes of sadness, anxiety, frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed. These episodes should not last more than a few days at most. If these feelings are continual and your teen is chronically anxious or sad, withdrawn from family and especially friends, then you should speak to him or her about your concerns and see if there may be a more serious problem than normal teenage angst.
What’s normal and what’s not
Everyone experiences ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ in their mood and outlook, and with adolescents, mood swings – from feeling ‘blue’ to over-the-top excitement, to feeling anxious or irritable – are relatively common. The inserts graph gives an idea of how often teenagers experience these feelings. Adolescents are prone to having more mood swings because of hormonal changes in their body and the fact that their brains are still developing. It can be difficult to tell the difference between ups and downs that are just part of being a teenager and teen depression.
It’s important to understand that the point at which a mental health difficulty becomes a mental health disorder can be difficult to distinguish, particularly as mental health symptoms – like physical health symptoms – generally occur on a continuum from mild to severe. The distinction can be particularly difficult with adolescents.
Is my teen depressed?
You know your child best, but your child is also changing and it might be hard to determine whether he or she seems capable of managing challenging feelings, or if life seems overwhelming. If you’re unsure if your teen is depressed or just ‘being a teenager’, consider how long the symptoms have been going on, how severe they are, and how different your teen is acting from his or her usual self. Hormones, brain development and stress can explain the occasional bout of teenage angst, but not continuous and unrelenting unhappiness, lethargy, or irritability.
The first step is to learn what teen depression looks like and what to do if you spot the warning signs.
Unlike adults, who have the ability to seek assistance on their own, teenagers rely on parents, teachers, or other caregivers to recognize their problems and get them the help they need. But recognizing the symptoms isn’t always easy. For one, teens with depression don’t necessarily appear sad and withdrawn. Instead, irritability, anger, and agitation may also be the most prominent symptoms.
Support for teenagers experiencing symptoms of depression
Although your teen is growing up and changing rapidly, as his or her parent you are in the best position to know who your child is. You know or have a gut feeling when they is acting out of character and when he or she is having difficulty. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to act on them. Even though your teenager may give you attitude when you ask them what’s wrong, asking on occasion lets them know that you care and that if they want to talk, you are open to it.
Here are some other ways to support your teen;
- Help them to understand that talking about their problems with someone they trust when things get bad is likely to be the most important thing they can do to protect their mental health.
- Be empathetic and non-judgemental with your teen struggling with depression or showing signs of distress. Take their concerns seriously and help them sort out their feelings and where these feelings are coming from.
- Help your teen deal with life issues and let them know that everyone – including adults – will have times in their life when they will feel sad or down.
- Help your teen to develop skills for resilience (for example problem solving skills) – support them in finding their own solutions to problems. They will gain the confidence that they are able to handle difficult situations themselves.
- Encourage your teen that is showing signs of withdrawing to engage with school and social activities.
- Help your teen to label positive experiences. Sometimes they don’t recognize when they are experiencing a lift in mood. And as we are wired to fixate on negative experiences, we need the positive for counterbalance.
- Talk together with your teen’s mentor to discuss support that the school can offer.
Any parent of an teenager wonders what the difference between regular adolescent mood swings and teenage behaviors and warning signs for depression are. If your teen shows symptoms of depression, ask yourselves how severe the symptoms seem, and how persistent. When a teen really seems to have changed, you can’t just write it off as adolescence. Many of the warning signs are relatively nonspecific; there could be many reasons adolescents might be hiding in their rooms, or bringing home significantly worse grades.
So, the first step is sit and have a conversation with your teen and find out what’s going on. Most important is to try and understand the development your teen is going through and let them know you are there for them. Sometimes they need a little time to open up and come talk to you. But be assured; you are still their rock.
If symptoms of depression begin or continue to interfere in your teen’s life, try to get them to accept help from a counselor in school or feel free to contact me (click here).