Depression is the most common mental illness among adolescents. Research tells us that 11% of teenagers have a diagnosable depressive disorder, but that only 1 in 5 teenagers get the help they need. So, how do parents know if their child is just going through teenage angst or dealing with a serious mental illness?

While moodiness, irritability and isolation are often hallmarks of teenage growing pains, it can be hard to realize where the line begins for mood disorders. The rule of thumb when dealing with depression is to examine three areas in a teen’s life to gauge what’s truly going on.  

Symptoms of Depression in Teenagers

While some of the following can be considered behaviors of a teen moving through the angst of adolescence, other symptoms are indicative of a more serious issue going on. The first thing is for parents to become familiar with these symptoms.

  • Anger, hostility, outbursts
  • Argumentativeness
  • Changes in eating and sleeping – either too much or too little
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Feelings of guilt or underserving of love
  • Giving things away
  • Grooming issues
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Irritability
  • Isolation
  • Lack of enthusiasm and motivation
  • Loss of interest in school work and/or activities
  • Low self-esteem
  • Minimizing or masking symptoms
  • Missing school
  • Negative thinking
  • Not enjoying things that used to bring happiness
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Poor grades
  • Reliance on alcohol or drugs to self-medicate
  • Retreating kinds of behaviors
  • Restlessness
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Sadness
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Sensitive to criticism
  • Spending a lot of time alone
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Withdrawal from friends and family

Areas of Concern

The next thing parents need to do is look at several aspects in their child’s life. The following three areas are what clinicians look at when diagnosing. They involve the Intensity of feelings and behaviors; the Duration of these experiences and finally the Domains in which they take place.

  1. Intensity: This involves the kind of thoughts and feelings a teenager is experiencing. Do they come and go – meaning they’re here one day and gone the next?  Are they mild, but chronic in their presentation? Are they moderate, interfering with school, home and social experiences? Are they so disruptive that you teen can’t get out of bed, is self-harming or suicidal thinking is being expressed? Measuring the intensity will help determine if the issues are a passing mood or symptoms of a mood disorder.

  2. Duration. This looks at the timeline of experiences. Does the moodiness present suddenly and is gone moments later? Is it followed by many good days in a row? Or is it more chronic, presenting for longer periods of time without any breaks? If the duration of symptoms is two weeks or longer, there is likely a depressive disorder operating.

  3. Domains. Teen angst tends to get the best of us parents and teachers, but adolescents can reel it in with their friends or with others. Psychological disorders, however, are often pervasive, meaning they tend to present in nearly all situations and circumstances and are not controlled by will. So, a depressed teenager will likely have difficulties functioning in school, at home, with peers, in social events as well as with their own sense of self. 

What to Do Next

If you think your child is struggling with something more than the expected growing pains of teenage years, take your concerns immediately to your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional in your community. Diagnosing depression and receiving treatment early can derail the seriousness of the disorder. Upwards of 80% of teenagers who begin treatment for a mood disorder respond to treatment.

Dr. Deborah Serani is a psychologist and author of the award-winning books Depression and Your Child: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers and Living with Depression by Rowman & Littlefield.

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