Signs of Depression In Teens & How To Address Them
People are becoming more aware of mental health struggles than ever before. Better conversations and more public acknowledgment have helped destigmatize the topic of mental health. More than ever, we’re aware that the experience of depression can truly affect everyone.
While children and adults both experience depression, its effects often change over time as kids grow and emotionally mature. Children who are experiencing depression can manifest their symptoms in many different ways, and it’s not always obvious to parents when depression is the cause of mood shifts, reduced social involvement, or lower academic participation. By knowing how to identify signs of depression in teens, you can be better prepared to help your child understand and confront the symptoms head-on.
In this blog post, we’ll break down how to spot signs of depression in teens, plus tools and techniques you can use to foster more open, honest, and transparent conversations with your kids.
When Are Kids Most Likely to Experience Depression?
Kids change all the time. One week, they might hate Fruit Loops, only to become passionate about them the next. These changes usually happen with no warning, as many parents can attest. One day everything is cool, and the next...nothing is!
But there’s a big difference between discovering new hobbies (or new favorite cereals) and larger shifts that can signal mental health issues. Research shows that the adolescent experience of depression is generally highest among teens, and the rate of teens experiencing depression has risen sharply in recent years. Physical, social, and emotional changes that happen during the teenage years aren’t the only causes of depression in kids. There are many other potential causes, including:
- Family history (genetic predisposition)
- Home and family life
- Social issues
- Excessive stress
- Developmental challenges
- Chemical imbalances
Regardless of the cause, there are common signs of teen depression that might prompt you to start a conversation about their health.
Common Signs of Depression in Teenagers
It's possible that signs of depression in teenagers could have simpler explanations like a vitamin deficiency or hypothyroidism. Knowing exactly what to look for can help you spot real issues that need more attention. Keep an eye out for the behaviors below if you think your child is experiencing depression. And — of course — speak with your child's doctor if you have concerns about their well-being.
Changes in Social Behavior
Kids spend less time at home as they develop friendships and join extracurricular activities. This might be a welcome change for both kids and parents, and it's definitely expected. But, withdrawal from social interactions that your child used to enjoy is problematic.
These shifts could include:
- Going out of their way to avoid friends.
- General lack of interest in social activities, or extreme aversion to social situations.
- Avoidance of family gatherings like mealtimes, outings, movie nights, or other pastimes.
- Skipping class, sports, and other activities to spend time alone.
Loss of Interest in Activities
It's fun to watch your kid obsess over anything new, from toys to technology to mastering an epic front flip. Most kids seek comfort and entertainment from activities they enjoy. As your kids grow up, they'll probably lose passion for a particular hobby, connection with a friend group, or interest in a school subject. This is different, though, from a complete disinterest in any activities. Total lack of interest in once-loved pastimes is a common sign of child depression.
Physical Appearance and Demeanor
Depression can affect the body in many different ways. Physical symptoms are sometimes a lot more obvious than emotional ones, especially when your teen will do just about anything to avoid showing how they’re really feeling.
Physical signs of child depression often include the following:
- Excessive lethargy or a constant desire to sleep
- Irregular sleep patterns — both too frequent and too little
- Continual sickness due to a weakened immune system
- Heightened anxiety without explanation, or which won’t subside
- Visible signs of self-harm (these must be immediately addressed)
School can be a struggle in itself, aside from social and parental pressures to perform. Kids who normally show effort toward and interest in their school work might suddenly stop caring altogether. If this is out of character for your child, then it's definitely a sign to note.
Here, we've used abnormal to mean different from how your child typically acts. Are they usually confident, expressive, and social? Are they now acting moodier and disconnected from what they generally enjoy? Everyone has bad days, and that’s more than understandable. Adolescence is full of ups and downs. But, no one knows their kid better than you, and you’ll likely notice right away if they have lost key pieces of their personality.
Depending on your child, signs of abnormal behavior could include:
- Unexpected mood swings, especially if your child can’t explain or predict them
- The inability to recall things that happened recently
- Lack of self-care or personal hygiene
- Significant, persistent feelings of sadness
Sadness is a normal emotion for everyone, and kids can feel it quite often. Temporary sadness due to the loss of a friendship or social rejection is common. However, persistent feelings of sadness are definitely a sign of child depression to watch. If your child can’t explain why they feel sad, then they might be experiencing longer-lasting effects of depression.
Unusual or Alarming Online Activity
Kids can gravitate toward certain online behaviors and communities if they’re experiencing depression. Interest in darker subject matter is common during bouts of depression and other mental health struggles. For example, children could be more likely to seek out online content about acts of self-harm or other expressions of difficult emotions.
Signs of troublesome online behavior might include:
- More tech use than normal
- Excessive late-night browsing
- Attempts to hide their activity
- Spending time with "online friends"
Mature content is often found in message boards, private chat rooms, messaging apps, and other online resources that are hard to find and even harder to track. We’ll talk about how to address this problem later by using Bark's content monitoring tool.
How to Spot Warning Signs of Child Depression
Now that you know common signs of teen depression, how do you keep an eye on your kid when they're at school, hanging out with friends, or working at their after-school job? We've compiled some of the best tools, resources, and methods for tackling this difficult task. In the sections below, we look at both online and offline ways of monitoring behavior to keep your child safe.
Online Activity and Sentiment Monitoring
If you’ve spent time trying to manually check your kid's social accounts, then you know it’s hard and very time-consuming. Connecting with your kids on social media and messaging apps can help, but it’s just the start. Since social media platforms allow users to hide certain activities from specific followers, it’s impossible to know exactly what’s happening in private.
A tool like Bark parental controls can help you easily keep tabs on your child's online activity. By monitoring social media, texts, messaging apps, and email, we help identify and report on alarming digital behavior. Bark's sentiment monitoring also uses the tone of messages to give parents insight into their child's emotional state. Together, these insights can help parents take action sooner and build better relationships.
Offline monitoring can be hard, too. Though most kids have some supervisory presence nearby during the day, a lot of activity still goes unnoticed. The following two suggestions can help you keep an eye on uncharacteristic behavior:
- When they are around you, jot down how often your child shows potential signs of child depression. Also, note any potential triggers. Your child's doctor may use this information for a diagnosis or treatment plan.
- Tap into a reliable network of teachers, coaches, mentors, parents of friends, religious leaders, or others who can see how your child acts when they’re not home.
Tips for Approaching a Teen Who’s Experiencing Depression
If you’re regularly seeing signs of teen depression, the next step could be to get involved. Experts note that open communication is vital for helping a child who’s experiencing depression. Having a safe place to discuss feelings or verbally process frustrations can be helpful for reducing the effects of depression.
How do you naturally start this conversation while respecting their boundaries and showing empathy?
- Address the subject directly and compassionately. Though it might feel uncomfortable at first, it’s usually better to get the issue out in the open. Do your best to remove shame, embarrassment, or reluctance to talk about feelings.
- Actively listen. Acknowledge your child’s experience. This will show that you respect their opinion and believe their symptoms. During face-to-face conversations, use non-verbal cues to show that you’re hearing and processing what they’re saying.
- Use their preferred method of communication. Younger kids often prefer to open up through text, chat, messaging apps, and other communication tools. These ways of talking might feel impersonal to you, but to your child, they might feel safe, comforting, and familiar.
- Develop shared ways of talking about depression. Depression can be hard to identify and diagnose because kids can't always explain how they’re feeling, or why. Working on common language and explaining terms related to depression are helpful practices.
- Provide healthy outlets for conversation and connection. A shared hobby or activity, especially one that your child enjoys, might help them open up and talk.
Of course, if you're concerned your child might be depressed, reach out to their pediatrician, who can recommend a licensed therapist to help them navigate this time. Childhood depression is a clinically-recognized and treated condition. Treatments range from therapy to medication that can treat chemical imbalances. Remind your kid that there's absolutely no shame in getting help. In fact, it's a radical act of strength and self-care.
What to Avoid When You See Signs of Teen Depression
When signs of teen depression first appear, it can be tempting to brush symptoms off as typical teenage moodiness. Even if you’re unsure what your child is experiencing (and why) there are some things that you don’t want to do:
- Ignore signs of teen depression. This can signal to your child that you haven’t observed changes in their behavior. It can also spur feelings of isolation, and further break down communication channels.
- Make your child feel guilty for their experience. This can easily happen by focusing on how it’s affecting their grades, friendships, or the quality of life for other family members.
- Approach depression symptoms with a “get over it” attitude. Kids will know if you treat depression like an optional experience or something that can switch on and off with sheer willpower.
- Stigmatize mental health issues. Using negative language about therapy or depression can affect how kids perceive their own feelings.
- Show signs of inactive/distracted listening, or not taking their symptoms seriously.
Key Takeaways about Child Depression
It’s totally understandable if this all feels a bit overwhelming. The key takeaways are simple:
- Keep a watchful eye if you think there are warning signs of child depression.
- Monitor online and offline activity.
- Use an understanding and empathetic approach in your conversations and interactions.
- Avoid the language of blame or personal responsibility.
- Act as soon as you spot signs of teen depression.
This will all go a long way toward early and healthy forms of intervention. As a final encouragement to any parent working through these difficult issues with their family: it’s very important to care for yourself amidst the busyness. Regular mental health check-ins with your own therapist can help you keep the right mindset and a patient attitude during difficult times. Having a dedicated partner for discussion and insight can be invaluable.
Bark is a comprehensive online safety solution that empowers families to monitor content, manage screen time, and filter websites to help protect their kids online. Our mission is to give parents and guardians the tools they need to raise kids in the digital age.