Depression: Troubled Teens

Most teens want to assert their independence, so how can parents tell if their children are depressed? Here are warning signs for teenage depression.

By Paul Raeburn, published December 10, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Adolescence is a time of huge social and emotional changes for kids, when they enter into complicated social webs at school and begin, sometimes in the most unpleasant ways, to assert their independence from their parents. They can be grouchy and withdrawn, they seem to sleep all weekend (except when it's time to go out at night), and they can be stubborn and responsive to even the simplest parental demands.

But take those normal hallmarks of adolescence, turn up the volume on all of them just a bit, and you have many of the symptoms of depression—withdrawal, sullen demeanor and irrational behavior. How is a parent to distinguish normal adolescence from the signs of emerging depression?

James McCracken of the University of California, Los Angeles Neuropsychiatric Institute has several rules of thumb to apply: a drop in academic performance; a change in activity, such as losing interest in a favorite sport; a big change in friendships or socializing; and difficulty with the family that goes beyond a bad day now and then.

All of these things can happen to normal adolescents, says McCracken, but a sign of trouble is a change in many of these things at the same time. "A lot of it is the persistence of the change, and the impact," he says. Watch for family life that is "strained day in and day out due to the youngster's mood, withdrawal of refusal to follow the guidelines parents are trying to set," he says.

If teens are spending more time alone in their room, that can be a normal thing, part of the push for independence. "The substitute is that their peer world becomes that much more important," McCracken says. If the child is withdrawing from peers, too, "that's when to get concerned."