Dr. Alex Gard, PhD, LMFT
Is My Teen Depressed? Warning Signs & Proactive Tips for Parents
It is no secret that we live in a time where depression and suicide rates are at an all-time high. Since 2007, teen suicide rates have risen steadily. In fact, the suicide rates for teen girls ages 15 to 19 doubled between 2007 and 2015, reaching the highest point in 40 years according to the CDC. Teen depression rates are also on the rise, and yet the stigma or fear of asking for help often leaves teens silent, and extremely vulnerable.
We have had numerous high-profile suicides over the last several years, including Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain most recently. While these deaths have enticed some conversation about the importance of mental health treatment, I would like to highlight the importance of prevention.
I would also like to talk to your parents because it is imperative to know what the warning signs are. Whether your teen is a high achieving, sociable and well-adjusted; or they’re struggling academically and having peer issues, this blog is relevant to you.
Depression does not discriminate, and it sometimes hides in the most pristine packaging.
A few years ago I worked with a teen client who was a straight-A student, captain of his football team, homecoming king, and ivy league bound. You name it, he was doing it and being the best at it. He hid his depression from everyone: family, teachers, friends. He thought if he ignored it, and achieved more, it would go away. He was wrong. The shame he felt about his depression was unbearable. The intense pressure to keep up being the best at everything he did, only exacerbated his feelings of loneliness, disconnection, and anxiety.
Luckily, he got into counseling at a pivotal time, and together with his family we created a treatment plan to help him heal. I don’t know where he would be now if he hadn’t had the bravery to ask for help. Not all teens will ask, in fact, most won’t, and parents are often the last to know their child is depressed.
So why am I talking to you, parents?
Because YOU are your child’s biggest advocate.
You can be the conduit that connects your child to the services they may need. Sometimes, symptoms of depression are not obvious. They are insidious and can be disguised as something else. For example, stomach aches, headaches, rashes; can all be physical manifestations of depression, and it’s easy to assume that these symptoms are completely unrelated to our emotions.
There are the more obvious signs of teen depression-like social isolation, academic underachievement, peer issues, changes in mood and irritability, changes in sleep, loss of interest in activities, talk about suicide, and/or fascination with death, just to name a few. However, depression is expressed differently in every person. So it is important to talk to your kids, regardless if the things on this list apply to them.
Let me make it clear too, that depression does not cause suicide. Depression, however, undoubtedly contributes to the agony and despair that one feels when one chooses to die by suicide. It is my firm belief that if we get our teens into therapy sooner, they can learn to manage their depression before it takes control of them.
So what can you do as a parent? Check out my tips below.
Trust your gut: Listen to your gut instinct. Your child may not appear to be struggling, and they may be telling you nothing is wrong. TRUST yourself. I have heard it before- “I don’t want to come across as a helicopter parent”, “I don’t want to pry or be overbearing.” Let me repeat. You are your child’s biggest advocate. Listen to your gut and trust yourself if you feel something is not right.
Normalize going to therapy: Your child learns about the world from you. If you regard therapy as something unnecessary or pointless, most likely your child will too. Help your child break the stigma. Teach your children that therapy is healthy, and not for people who are “crazy” and “have issued”. Teach your children that going to therapy is brave and that it is a great way to prevent struggles down the road.
Normalize your child’s experience: It is not always easy to sit and talk with your teens about concerns you may have, especially if you are concerned about their mental health. My biggest advice to parents gearing up to have some of these tough conversations is to normalize what your teen is going through. Let them know that millions of people are fighting depression and mental health issues every day. Share with them how brave it is to reach out and ask for help. If you have struggled with depression in your life, share this with your teen. Let them know it’s okay, that there are solutions, and they are not alone in their struggle.
Let your child teach you, don’t make assumptions: When approaching a conversation like this with your teen, come from a place of curiosity. Have them educate you about what they are going through, don’t assume you know what they are going through. Let them explain what they are feeling. Even if you think you already know or have an understanding, let them be the expert on themselves. You approaching them from this one-down position helps you to be more relatable to your child. You are the expert in everything else, give this one to them.
Cultivate meaningful relationships with your children’s friends: This is probably my favorite tip that I am sharing with you today. Parents are often the last to know their kid is depressed. But guess who is usually the first to know? Yep, you got it- their friends. Make an effort to get to know and have relationships with your teen’s friends. If they suspect that something is happening with your child, and they are concerned for their safety, they will want to come and tell you, but only if they feel that they can.
I hope you found these tips useful. If you need help navigating these conversations with your teen, or you want to get your teen connected with a therapist, call me (Alex Gard, LMFT) today at 954.391.5305 to schedule a session.
If you or anyone you know is currently struggling with suicidal thoughts or behaviors, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line.