Most teens will be blue from time to time, just like adults. But how do you know when there's a deeper problem?
When we think about adolescent depression in clinical terms, it's on a spectrum, similar to how we treat Autism.
If you Google the symptoms of depression, you're likely to think, "Aren't most of those things just part of being a teenager?" And yes, that can be true: sometimes teens will grapple with symptoms like lethargy, withdrawal, low mood and irritability. This doesn't necessarily indicate depression. However, I always emphasize prevention. If your gut is telling you something isn't right, you need to investigate.
Now, here's the good news. A teenager's brain is still wiring and forming throughout adolescence, which means that there are many opportunities to support, shape and guide your child's mind to adapt to healthier thought patterns.This means that as a parent, you can help your teen to minimize the frequency, duration and severity of depressive episodes in the short-term, and also manage the depression over time.
I recommend keeping a journal to track frequency, severity and duration of these symptoms to help you evaluate whether a discussion with a family doctor or psychologist is necessary.
Watch for warning signs
Be aware of your teen's mood, and make note of changes. Take any cries for help seriously, and don't wait until a serious incident before getting professional help. You know your child best.
Warning signs can include: behaving differently; sleeping too much or not enough; eating too much or not enough; irritability; lacking motivation; avoiding things they used to enjoy; withdrawing from family or friends.
In my practice, I sometimes see other behaviours, for example something drastic like a teen shaving their head or altering their appearance in another extreme way. Look at everything in context: overall, is your teen "different?" Are there external events that may have triggered these changes?
It can be frustrating when communication feels like a one-way street
Depression can sometimes present itself after a significant life change. It can be easy to write off minor symptoms as "one-offs" or "just being a teenager." But looked at together, they could paint a different picture.
Major red flag: the depressive triad
A strong sign of serious depression is something called the "Depressive Triad." This is a high-risk state in which an individual will demonstrate negative feelings about self, environment and future, all at once. Negative beliefs about all points of the triad at once is a clear sign your teen isn't in a good place. This is a high-risk state, and you should intervene and make an appointment for your teen to speak to a psychologist or doctor right away.
Have a daily or weekly check-in
Talk to your teen. Use open-ended questions to avoid getting a one-word answer. Try questions such as, "How are things going for you," "What's happening lately at school/with friends/hockey," "What are you looking forward to that's coming up?"
A non-answer doesn't necessarily indicate anything bad. This may be just how your teen communicates with you. However, if your teen used to always tell you how things are going and doesn't anymore, or if they only speak in negatives, this could be a sign of depression.
Resist the urge to disengage
It can be frustrating when communication feels like a one-way street. You might want to be giving them their space when they ask for it, but continue to try to communicate with them on a regular basis. A strong relationship with parents is a protective factor for youth with depression. Even if their behaviour is pushing you away, they probably need you more than ever before.
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When a teenager is really irritable, it's not going to be helpful to be irritable back. If you find yourself feeling frustrated or overwhelmed with your teen's reactions, try the 3 Bs: be quiet; back away; breathe. Then, try again later when you're feeling better. Staying calm isn't always easy, but it's far more effective than losing your cool and pushing your teen further away at a challenging time.
If you're concerned your child may be suffering from depression, especially if there is any family history of mental illness, please make an appointment to see your family doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist for an assessment right away.
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