Is Your Teen Moody — or Depressed? 7 Tips for Parents

Take these positive steps to help troubled teens
Is Your Teen Moody — or Depressed? 7 Tips for Parents

Your teen is being really irritable. Is it a random bad mood — or something more?

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Most teens bounce back quickly from a few days of moodiness. But those who feel sad, hopeless or irritable for weeks, months or longer are likely to be depressed.

“Teens with depression are at higher risk for school problems, peer and family conflict, substance abuse, self-injury and suicide,” says psychiatrist Joseph Austerman, DO. “But evidence shows that early detection and treatment of depression can help prevent or minimize its debilitating effects.”

A bona fide illness

Depressed teens — and their parents — often feel like they’re the only ones dealing with this problem. Yet in 2014, 2.8 million U.S. adolescents aged 12 to 17 suffered major depression, according to the National Institute on Mental Health. And that number is probably low.

Of greater concern: On average, one in five high school students seriously considers suicide.

The NIMH considers depression a treatable brain illness. “An ever-growing body of literature supports the neurobiology of depression,” says Dr. Austerman. “Genetic factors and social experiences can alter the brain’s neurotransmitters, neuroplasticity and neural networks, and disrupt hormone regulation.”

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What to look for

The causes of depression vary. Big life transitions (such as moving or parental divorce) can affect teens’ thoughts and moods. Stress, rapidly changing hormones and lack of sleep just compound the problem.

“Depression often causes a change in demeanor. Teens may withdraw socially, and become increasingly irritable or sad. Academic performance may worsen,” says Dr. Austerman.

Parents may notice changes in a teen’s sleep, appetite or concentration. Self-esteem and self-confidence may take a nose dive. In severe cases, teens may think about suicide.

Eating disorders, anxiety and substance abuse can co-exist with depression. In extreme cases, teens can suffer a break with reality, involving hallucinations and delusions or physical slowness.

“The most important thing you can do is recognize a change in your teen,” says Dr. Austerman. “It never hurts to seek an evaluation from a professional when something just does not feel right.”

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Your child’s doctor can rule out any health problems that can trigger depression and, if needed, refer your teen to a psychologist, therapist or counselor. Talk therapy — and, when needed, medication — are highly effective for teens. Even hopelessly depressed teens get better once they:

  • Begin to understand and manage their moods and feelings
  • Learn to replace negative with positive thinking
  • Discover how to use mindfulness techniques

If antidepressants are needed, a few types have proven both safe and effective for teens.

7 things you can do

Meanwhile, parents can take these steps to help a depressed teen:

  1. Keep it real. Tell teens they’re grappling with a real illness and that they can learn to manage it.
  2. Encourage patience. Remind teens to be good to themselves and patient with treatment, which can take time.
  3. Applaud good habits. Daily exercise (even walking), going to bed on time, enjoying sunshine and nature, and making healthy food choices help to counter depression.
  4. Encourage openness. “Give teens the space to express their feelings honestly, without judgment. If you disagree with their decisions or actions, you can say, “I do not like that action but I love you, and we’ll work on this together,’” says Dr. Austerman.
  5. Get family support. Schedule time with a supportive aunt, uncle or grandparent, especially one who makes your teen laugh.
  6. Encourage activities. Make it easy for your teen to socialize and do activities with friends.
  7. Address friendships. Remind teens that trustworthy friends will always be there for them and untrustworthy friends don’t have to be part of their lives. Let them know relationship problems won’t last forever. “Explain that friends are friends, with their own struggles. They can be supportive but don’t have effective tools to help you through depression,’” says Dr. Austerman.

One of the best things parents can do in times of turmoil? Model healthy behaviors and self-care for your teen. “Even though teens don’t show it, they learn much more by your actions than by your advice,” says Dr. Austerman.

If you’re concerned a teen is suicidal, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), 24/7 for immediate help.

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