Does this sound familiar? You have a teenager at home…one minute they’re on top of the world, the next they’re down in the dumps. One minute you’re the best dad or mom there ever was. The next you’re the world’s worst, and they can’t wait to leave home.
Teenagers are on an emotional seesaw as their lives, bodies and hormones change. The ride can vary from teen to teen, while some are even-tempered, others are always up, always down or somewhere in between. This fluctuation makes it difficult to know what’s developmentally appropriate. How can you tell whether an adolescent is just momentarily unhappy or if they are genuinely depressed and in need of professional help? These are questions that struggling teenagers and every parent of a child from 10 to 18, should seriously consider.
There is no one reason why kids become depressed, which makes things more complicated. Common factors include: parents’ divorce, family financial strain, being subjected to physical or sexual abuse or witnessing it, or having a parent who is addicted to alcohol or drugs. Additionally, kids may become depressed because they aren’t achieving their academic or extracurricular goals; or because they have trouble making friends, or are relentlessly ridiculed or rejected by peers. Sometimes, the cause isn’t external but an underlying feeling of inadequacy or unattractiveness or confusion about sexual identity.
With so many influences, it’s not surprising that teenage depression in on the rise. Researchers predict that about one in 10 kids will develop a depressive disorder by age 16. Additionally, and more concerning is the increase in suicide. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among people 15 to 24, behind accidents and homicides. In 2017 the National Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System found that 17.2 percent of students, or one in five high school age students, seriously considered attempting suicide.
Recognizing the Signs
It is easy to dismiss the signs of teenage depression as merely a phase or the mood swings of adolescence. And teenagers may be reluctant to admit they’re depressed, sometimes claiming, they don’t want to worry their parents or make things worse; even their closest friends may fail to notice the subtle or masked signs of severe depression, or, if they do notice, they find other explanations, like getting a bad grade or losing a boyfriend. So here is what you can look for: Depression can cause fatigue or interfere with the ability to concentrate. Teenagers may become irritable, angry, bored, excessively guilty or anxious. There may be frequent outbursts of shouting, complaining or crying. In some depressed adolescents, emotional stress shows up in physical complaints like chronic or recurrent headaches, muscle pains, tiredness or stomachaches. There are other signs like changes in eating habits, appetite, or sleep disturbances such as difficulty sleeping or oversleeping. Often, there is a loss of energy and withdrawal from friends and activities. Remember there is no one recipe or symptom to define depression, which is why it is important to consult with a professional.
There are many methods in which to treat teenage depression. Psychotherapy, either traditional talk therapy or more focused skills based therapy, may be all that a moderately depressed teenager needs to recover fully. When depression is more severe, chronic, or recurrent, medication may be necessary. When a young person is struggling with depression, the emotional volatility can be exhausting for a parent. At this time, it is critical to remain open and engaged while exploring treatment options for your child. Often this means getting professional support for the parents and other family members as they navigate the effects of depression. If any of this sounds familiar, or you have any questions regarding your child or teen’s behavior please call Haven 847-251-6630.
By now, you’ve likely heard that September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Campaigns from national and community groups urge individuals to reach out and not cope with it alone. To Write Love On Her Arms launched a campaign #TomorrowNeedsYou and thousands of people have shared why suicide is not the answer. Check out their resources HERE. They urge individuals to seek help to prevent suicide.
So what happens if your child comes to you with thoughts of self-harm or suicide? Or, more subtly, you notice that your child is exhibiting signs of self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Have that conversation, start by sharing what you’ve noticed and then ask: how are you doing?
Step One: Listen: Resist the urge to fix.
In an immediate crisis, most adolescents are not looking for someone to come ‘fix them’ or prove to them why their perception is not accurate. Try to talk less. Ask open-ended questions and give them space to share their experience. Thank them for being open and honest with you. Remind them that their feelings are not too much for you.
Step Two: Validate: Remind them that it’s okay to not be okay.
As a parent, it’s typical to want to have all the answers or be able to wrap everything up into a ‘teachable moment’ bow. However, an adolescent sharing suicidal thoughts or behaviors isn’t easily wrapped up in a bow after a single conversation. Explicitly tell your child that you see them in their pain and love them just the same. Tell them it is okay that they are not okay in this moment and brainstorm together what the best next step is.
Step Three: Get Help: You do not have to weather this alone.
If you believe your child is not safe and is at immediate risk for harming themselves take them to the emergency room for an immediate evaluation by hospital staff. Otherwise, contact a mental health agency like Haven Youth and Family Services. Our clinicians offer free safety assessments to support your family and can begin therapy within one week in most cases.
“Oh my gosh, I’m literally dead” or “that was so embarrassing I could just die” – statements about death and dying are fairly common in today’s culture. It’s a fine line between a casual statement and cry for help.
Perhaps you’ve thought, “maybe they’re just trying to get attention” with poor or withdrawn behavior or casual suicidal statements. If you believe your child is making suicidal or self-harm statements in order to get attention, by all means give them attention. Receiving attention is part of their developmental needs. Sure, they need to develop some new ways to get the attention, but this should not be ignored. Seek professional help to create a space for your child to receive individual attention and support weekly and consider getting help for yourself so that you can engage in healthy, supportive conversations about these behaviors. The staff team at Haven is determined to provide immediate assistance to adolescents in the community needing intervention. Please call today to set up an appointment.