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Hidden Signs of Teen Depression

Learn how to spot teen depression and when to see your doctor

Sad female teenager

Learn how to spot teen depression and when to see your doctor

Teens face untold pressures, from physical changes to questions about who they are and what they want to do with their lives, so it’s no wonder they are known for being a moody and temperamental group.

But while occasional bad moods and acting out can be normal adolescent conduct, these types of behaviors also can indicate underlying depression or anxiety.

An estimated 3.2 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode (13 percent of the US population in that age group), according to 2017 statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health. Prevalence was higher among girls. In addition, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), after accidents.

“Whether there are more teens experiencing depression and anxiety, or we’re just becoming more aware of them, the fact is that depression and anxiety afflict our teenagers more often than we thought,” says Gurinder Dabhia, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo.

Because normal behaviors vary as children and teens develop, it can be challenging to know if your teen is going through a temporary phase or is experiencing depression or anxiety. However, there are warning signs for both conditions that can help parents.

Signs of depression in teens

Teenagers may exhibit different symptoms than younger children or adults. Signs that may indicate depression include:

  • Lack of interest in regular social activities
  • Sudden bursts of anger coupled with irritability
  • Negative thinking
  • Extreme sensitivity to criticism
  • Sulking
  • Feeling misunderstood
  • A drop in school grades, attendance or not doing homework
  • High-risk behaviors, such as shoplifting or reckless driving
  • A change in sleeping patterns or trouble sleeping
  • A change in eating habits, such as eating more or less than usual
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Unexplained aches and pains, such as headaches
  • Withdrawal from family and friends. Teens usually keep up at least some friendships, but will socialize less or pull away from parents.

Symptoms of anxiety in teens

Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at times, and it is a normal reaction to stress. When anxiety seems to be continually out of proportion to the situation and affects your teen’s daily life and happiness, then it may signal an anxiety disorder. Symptoms include:

  • Excessive worry most days of the week
  • Trouble sleeping at night or sleepiness during the day
  • Restlessness or fatigue during waking hours
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability

“Depression and anxiety often occur together, although they should be diagnosed separately and treated as two separate issues,” says Dr. Dabhia.

See your family doctor

Depression and anxiety can be damaging if left untreated, leading to long-term issues, such as chronic pain and diabetes. The good news is they are treatable.

If your teen exhibits signs of either depression or anxiety that persist for more than two weeks, make an appointment with your teen’s doctor. The physician will ask the appropriate screening questions, usually with the parents present, and will also have a confidential discussion with your child. If warranted, your doctor can refer you to a specialist.

Be prepared to discuss specific information about your adolescent’s symptoms with your doctor, including how long they’ve been present, how much they’re affecting your teen’s daily life and any patterns you’ve noticed. In addition, bring up any family history of close relatives who have been diagnosed with a mood disorder or mental illness, as well as events in your own immediate family. Sometimes depression or anxiety may be triggered by changes within the family unit, such as a divorce, remarriage, a new sibling or move.

“It’s important that parents aren’t frightened,” says Dr. Dabhia. “Most people think these conditions are difficult to treat, but there are a variety of options that can help, including talk therapy. Early treatment can shorten the period of illness and help your teen cope.”

How parents can help

  • Talk with your teen frequently.
  • Offer support. Let your teen know that you are there unconditionally and make it clear you are willing to offer whatever support they need.
  • Be persistent. Don’t give up if your adolescent refuses to talk at first. Talking about depression can be tough, but helpful.
  • Don’t lecture. Accept what your teen tells you without judging or criticizing.
  • Validate feelings. Don’t try to talk your adolescent out of his or her anxiety or depression.