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How to Recognize Depression in Your Child

Parents who think their teen may be depressed may have a lot of questions. What causes teen depression? What are the signs of teen depression? How can I help my teen who is depressed? Long Island Tutorial Services shares answers to these questions and more.

depressed teen girlDepression is not like a broken bone. You cannot see it on an X-ray or determine where the inception of this disease took place. For parents who have depressed children or suspect their children suffer from anxiety, it can be scary. The purpose of this article is to bring about a conversation within your family, children, or your doctor should your child experience signs of depression.

Factors Influencing Depression

It has been said that depression is one of the most tragically misunderstood words in the English language. The term depression typically depicts a picture of mere sadness. We as a society refer to depression in everyday conversation as usually having something far less serious in mind. It is not necessarily a term for people who have been abused as children to grow up feeling negatively about themselves or their prospects. It is also not because of how they have learned to think about their self-worth or their ability to successfully respond to the tasks and stressors present in daily living.

Psychological factors influencing depression include characteristic negative patterns of thinking, deficits in coping skills, judgment problems, and impaired emotional intelligence (the ability to perceive, understand, and express emotions) that depressed people tend to exhibit. To some degree, these psychological factors can be influenced by biology (e.g, people's innate temperament, or their biologically-based personality characteristics, can influence people to be more or less likely to act in ways characteristic of depression). People can also become depressed as a result of social factors such as experiencing traumatic situations, early separation, lack of social support, or harassment (bullying). Research has shown that stressful social events are capable of serving as triggers for turning genes on and off, causing changes in brain functioning.

Teenage Depression and Parental Concerns

As parents you sometimes wonder whether your irritable or unhappy adolescent might actually be experiencing teen depression. Of course, most teens feel unhappy at times. And when you add hormone havoc to the many other changes happening in a teen's life, it's easy to see why their moods swing like a pendulum. Yet findings show that one out of every eight adolescents has teen depression.

However, just like adults, teen depression can be treated as well as the serious problems that come with it. If your teen's unhappiness lasts for more than two weeks and he or she displays other symptoms of depression, it may be time to seek help from a health professional. As a parent of a depressed adolescent you may ask why is my child depressed? Just as described above, there are multiple reasons why a teenager might become depressed. For example, teens can develop feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy over their grades. School performance, social status with peers, sexual orientation, or family life can each have a major effect on how a teen feels. Sometimes, teen depression may result from environmental stress. But whatever the cause, when friends or family—or things that the teen usually enjoys—don't help to improve his or her sadness or sense of isolation, there's a good chance that he or she has teen depression.

As educators for many years, we have seen students placed on home instruction for this disease on many levels. In working alongside school districts, we are often faced with an adolescent that has just come out of a hospital, due to not only having depression, but a variety of other medical challenges such as anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). Parents would initially describe their child, prior to the onset of depression as being social, caring, a good student, involved, however as time went on they began to notice changes in their behavior such as displaying signs of but not limited to:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • remembering details
  • making decisions
  • fatigue and decreased energy
  • feelings of guilt
  • worthlessness and/or helplessness
  • feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • insomnia
  • early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
  • irritability
  • restlessness
  • loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable
  • overeating or under-eating
  • persistent aches or pains
  • headaches
  • cramps
  • digestive problems that do not ease even with medical treatment
  • persistently sad
  • anxious or "empty" feelings
  • thoughts of suicide
  • suicide attempts

Teens rarely just struggle with depression.

Depressive symptoms are part of a bigger picture. For instance, anxiety commonly co-occurs with depression. In fact, in her private practice, [Alice Rubenstein, Ed.D, a clinical psychologist in who treats teens] has noticed more teens coming in with symptoms of anxiety largely because of the combination of academic pressures and attempts to balance school with sports (or other extracurricular activities) and social events. In other cases, depression may be the primary problem, but other disorders, like learning difficulties, still exist.

As parents you should know:
  • Major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States.
  • The 12-month prevalence data for major depressive episode presented here are from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.  Based mainly on the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), in the NSDUH study a major depressive episode is defined as:
  • A period of two weeks or longer during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, and at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in functioning, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, and self-image.
  • Unlike the definition in the DSM-IV, no exclusions were made for a major depressive episode caused by medical illness, bereavement, or substance use disorders.
  • In 2012, an estimated 2.2 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This represented 9.1 percent of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17.

What should parents do if their teen has depression?

As an educational service provider, we are often informed by parents that they had not reached out to anyone until a major episode of depression and threat of suicide occured or that they took their child to a pediatrician for prescription anti-depressants. While certainly something must be done, psychiatrists are recommending to first have your child tested for a hormonal imbalance and/or for use of non-prescription medication. Geurin Weiss, Ph.D., a leading clinical psychologist, advises to “take them to a therapist. If after two or three months of psychotherapy, you see it's not helping, then—and only then—should you try medication."

However, if medication is prescribed there is overwhelming evidence that whatever the anti-depressant prescribed, it should only be used in combination with concurrent psychological therapy.

Additionally, what we often see in the home environment are parents providing kids with everything they want and sometimes giving up their right to parent.

Parental contact is extremely important and as a parent you should know that the worst thing to do is to do nothing. Your teen may be reluctant to open up; he or she may be ashamed, afraid of being misunderstood, or may not know how to express what they’re feeling. Alternatively, depressed teens may simply have a hard time expressing what they’re feeling. If your teen claims nothing is wrong but has no explanation for what is causing the depressed behavior, you should trust your instincts. Remember that denial is a strong emotion. Furthermore, teenagers may not believe or understand that what they’re experiencing is the result of depression. Remember, be persistent and encourage your teen to “open up.”

Offer support: Let depressed teenagers know that you’re there for them, fully and unconditionally. Hold back from asking a lot of questions (teenagers don’t like to feel patronized or crowded), but make it clear that you’re ready and willing to provide whatever support they need.

Be gentle but persistent: Don’t give up if your adolescent shuts you out at first. Talking about depression can be very tough for teens. Be respectful of your child’s comfort level while still emphasizing your concern and willingness to listen.

Listen without lecturing: Resist any urge to criticize or pass judgment once your teenager begins to talk. The important thing is that your child is communicating. Avoid offering unsolicited advice or ultimatums as well.

Validate feelings: Don’t try to talk your teen out of his or her depression, even if his or her feelings or concerns appear silly or irrational to you. Simply acknowledge the pain and sadness he or she is feeling. If you don’t, he or she will feel like you don't take his or her emotions seriously.

For those that are struggling financially or need to talk to someone, we have found that your local school is always a good source for information. You can discuss your child’s matter confidentially with a counselor, social worker, teacher, building administrator, or the school’s local Committee of Special Education administrator. Because depression carries a high risk of suicide, anyone who expresses suicidal thoughts or intentions should be taken very, very seriously. If you cannot get in contact with anyone for whatever reason, you can always call your local suicide hotline immediately: 800-SUICIDE (784-2433) or 800-273-TALK (273-8255), the deaf hotline at 800-799-4TTY (799-4889), or even 911.

Road To Recovery

The road to your depressed teenager’s recovery may be bumpy, so be patient. Celebrate in small victories and prepare for the occasional setback, which there will be. Most importantly, don’t judge yourself or compare your family to others. As long as you’re doing your best to get your teen the necessary help, you’re doing your job. However, as the road to recovery continues you may find yourself focusing all your energy and attention on your depressed child. Meanwhile, you may be neglecting your own needs and the needs of other family members. While helping your depressed child should be a top priority, it’s important to keep your whole family strong and healthy during this difficult time. This is extremely important especially while your depressed teen is recovering, for the simple reason of keeping a good balance of his or her surrounding environment.

Take care of yourself: Stay healthy, be in tune to your own needs, and be positive

Reach out for support: Talk to friends, family, or even clergy

Be open with the family: Don’t tiptoe around the issue to “protect” the other children

Remember the siblings: Depression in a child can cause stress or anxiety in other family members

Avoid the blame game: Avoiding blaming yourself for your child’s depression is a way of taking care of a stressful situation in a proactive manner. In addition, as mentioned earlier, depression is normally caused by a number of factors, so it is unlikely that a loved one is responsible for such a disease.

Long Island Tutorial Services is an educational service provider to school districts as well as private families in Sayville, Long Island. We specialize in home instruction in the academic areas as well as many related items such as reading, speech, and counseling services. Throughout our tenure we have noticed an increase of students that are suffering from a disease of depression and anxiety.