That's just teen angst … right?
Recognizing depression in teenagers isn’t easy. In adults, who tend to have more stable personality traits and moods, depression might seem noticeable to others. On the other hand, adolescence is a time in which the body goes through a number of changes that can affect mood, behavior, and self-esteem.
About 13 percent of American adolescents between the ages of 12 to 17 experienced at least one episode of major depression in 2016, according to the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH). Surprisingly, that’s higher than the rate among adults, which is only about 7 percent. (An episode of major depression is characterized as having symptoms of depression for at least two weeks.)
To make it worse, there are several myths about depression in teens that make it even harder to recognize the signs.
MYTH: That’s just normal teen moodiness—they’ll grow out of it.
“Although teens definitely can be quite moody, depression goes deeper than this and usually shows up in all areas of their lives, not just interactions with parents or other family members,” says Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C.
Not only is this a myth, but it is a dangerous myth. “The rate of suicide for teens is high,” points out Wyatt Fisher, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and author of marriage book Total Marriage Refresh. Indeed, ignoring your teen’s symptoms of depression and assuming they’ll bounce back on their own can allow their depression to worsen.
“Anytime your teen seems down [or] irritable and withdrawn, it’s important to lovingly dig deeper to get them the support they may desperately need,” says Dr. Fisher.
A good clue that your teenager has depression and not just “teenage angst” is a change in their sleep, appetite, energy levels, or focus, according to NIMH. Teenagers who are just irritable will likely maintain normal sleeping or eating patterns.
MYTH: Popular teens don't get depressed.
“In actuality, a teenager who is popular may be more likely to feel pressure to stay amongst the popular crowd and therefore feel stressed and possibly depressed if they are not able to maintain that image or live up to everyone’s expectations of them,” says Melissa N. Green, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist at Resilience and Psychological Fitness Center, LLC, in Georgia.
"Also, keep in mind that depression is a biologically based illness, so some teenagers may be more prone to developing symptoms of depression," says Dr. Green. This could make managing the typical stressors of high school more challenging. However, good social supports can act as a buffer against depression.
MYTH: A teen who's acting depressed just needs some tough love.
Many parents may try to set strict rules and discipline their teen aggressively in an attempt to get them out of their “weird mood.” Unfortunately, this will most likely make things worse, according to Christine Selby, PhD, licensed psychotherapist and associate professor of psychology at Husson University.
Your teen may “feel helplessness and hopelessness that they will ever be able to earn back lost privileges due to the nature of depressive thinking,” says Dr. Selby. For example, your teen may respond to tough love by thinking, “I’m a terrible person and I will always be a terrible person. It will never get better.”
Instead, Dr. Selby suggests recognizing what is a misbehavior and what is a symptom of the depression. “If punishment is deemed necessary, it is helpful to point out what the teen is doing well and what privileges will not be affected,” says Dr. Selby.
MYTH: As the parent, I would know best if my teen is depressed.
“Children are very good at disguising their symptoms from those closest to them,” says Adamaris Mendoza, LPC, psychotherapist. Additionally, teens tend to interact with their parents differently than they do their friends or even other adults.
“I highly recommend parents to have consistent two-way communication with teachers, coaches, friends, and other people who have regular contact with their children,” says Mendoza. “That way they can have a multidimensional picture of their kids’ lives and a much better chance of noticing if there’s something wrong before it gets worse.”
MYTH: My teen won't talk to me so there's nothing I can do.
It can be frustrating to want to talk to your teen to lift them out of a depressed state, only to have them pull the covers over their head every time you walk in their bedroom. Luckily, a heart-to-heart isn’t the only way you can help a teen with depression.
“Spend time with your teenager, plan activities with them, and most of all, listen to them,” says Channing Marinari, LMHC, of Banyan Treatment Center. “Give them a chance to talk and open up without judging or criticizing. Stay consistent in listening to them, and if necessary, involve a professional or their school to help.”
If you think your teen has depression, learn more here about how depression is treated.