Recognizing Teen Depression

As your teen matures into adulthood, their emotions associated with social and academic pressures, puberty, and decision making can often be overwhelming for them. Occasional emotional outbursts, aloofness, and frustration are expected behaviors from teens. Engaging your teen using direct communication and active listening, can help your son or daughter gain perspective, resolve feelings, and take appropriate actions.
But what do you do when your son or daughter is in an emotional funk that’s lasting several weeks or their mood seems stuck in a downward spiral? These behaviors may be signs of something more serious, your teen could be suffering from depression.
For some depressed teens, irritability and anger are prominent symptoms. Others may have difficulty concentrating and lack energy, or outwardly cry often and feel sad most of the time. With so many different symptoms possible, differentiating “typical teen moodiness” from depression can be difficult at times.
Some depressed teens cope with their pains using unhealthy, high risk behaviors such as cutting, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and eating disorders. If you suspect depression and/or behavioral problems, take every symptom seriously, and take action immediately.
Speak Up – At the earliest opportunity, gently but directly ask your teen how he or she is feeling.  Bring up specific examples of behaviors you have observed. For example, “I’ve noticed you are in your room a lot and do not seem like your usual self lately ,” or “I notice you are not spending much time with your friends anymore. Can we talk about it?”
Be Available – Expect that your teen may not immediately open up, but don’t give up. Consistently offer compassion, respect, and understanding. Emphasize your love and support of your teen and that your goal is to help them find a way to feel better.
Listen Carefully When your teen begins to open up and talk about what they are experiencing, listen carefully and refrain from offering advice. Never criticize or dismiss his or her feelings. Don’t focus on trying to solve their problems, your role is to listen and gather information.
Acknowledge Feelings – Take your teen’s emotions and feelings seriously. Validate them by explaining that his or her feelings are very real and although they may not go away on their own, help is available.
Get Help – Schedule a visit with your teen’s doctor to discuss their symptoms and screen for depression. Remind your teen that depression is a medical illness that like so many other medical problems, can be treated successfully. Stay positive and encourage your teen throughout the process.
Follow Through – Some primary care doctors are comfortable treating depression, others may refer your teen to an appropriate mental health professional. Treatments may involve talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, family counseling, and/or lifestyle changes. If your son or daughter does not seem to be “clicking” with their mental health professional, try another one. Successful treatment requires time and commitment from both you and your teen, be proactive.
Mild to moderate depression typically responds well to therapy. More severe depression often requires both therapy and antidepressant medications. Your teen’s doctor will discuss which medications may be appropriate, their benefits, and potential risks. If your teen expresses any feelings that suggest they may want to harm themselves or that their life is not worth living, take action immediately. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. This support line is open 24 hours.
The incidence of depression is increasing and research has made many advances in treatments. Depression is no longer a condition to be “swept under the rug,” ignored, or hidden away from society. For more information about teen depression and mental health, visit and
Cynthia Vanson, MD
Assistant Medical Director

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