Teenage angst can only go on for so long. For many parents, it’s difficult to figure out whether your teen’s behavior is due to something much more serious and long-term — like depression. Recognizing signs of depression in teens can be hard, but they may be more noticeable than you think.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 2.3 million US teens aged 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in 2017. Of that number, only 19.6% received professional help. This doesn’t mean you should try to self-diagnose your teen as depressed, but to be mindful and look out for the signs. Understanding what these signs may look like, and seeking out the reasons behind teenage depression can enable you to help them even further.
Here are the top signs according to experts.
1. Drop in School Performance
If your teen is usually the type to excel in academics and is suddenly getting several letter grades below their usual, getting calls home, and so on, it’s time for a conversation. A sudden drop in school performance can be one of the many signs of depression in teens.
Depression can generate apathy for teens, causing them to lose interest in aspects of their daily routine, including school. However, do be wary of other possible causes behind the drop in school performance, like an undiagnosed learning disability or a bullying issue at school. Or, school itself can be the cause of teen depression.
Possible Cause: School Stress
As your child gets older, the likelihood of them facing stress from school increases. It may not even be coming from the expectations you place on them, but the expectations they place on themselves, comparisons to their peers, and their focus on success.
Teens can often tie their idea of self-worth to their academic performance, so when they do catch themselves performing poorly, they feel bad about themselves. Even if they are excelling academically, their focus on grades can be a great contributing factor to anxiety and depression.
2. Withdrawing from Activities or Hobbies
Extracurriculars and hobbies — sports, dance, volunteer groups — can take up a large chunk of a teen’s daily routine. If your teen has time commitments for activities they normally enjoy, but they begin to ignore or miss attending them, it can be a sign of depression. Try reaching out to see why they no longer want to participate, whether it be because they want to try something new or that they are suffering from depression.
What could cause them to drop from an activity or hobby that brings them joy?
Possible Cause: Bullying
When you send your teen out to play a team sport or join the school dance team, it’s a great way of giving them independence. However, you may be unaware of how they are treated by others, both offline and online. Your teen could be on the receiving end of bullying.
Being bullied can make a teen scared to participate in an extracurricular or their hobbies, especially if their ties to their hobbies is the reason they are getting bullied. Bullying can impact multiple areas of your teen’s life.
Don’t worry, there’s hope. Check out how you can help your teen if you suspect that they are being bullied.
Helping Your Bullied Teen
If your teen has already told you they are being bullied, take immediate action. Get involved where you can, contact school officials (teachers and administrators) and get issues resolved. Depending on how serious it may be, you may need administrative action to get the issue resolved for your teen.
If your teen is less open about their struggles, make sure your teen knows that they can always come up to you for help with their struggles — don’t corner them into confessing.
3. Significant Weight Gain or Loss
When a teen is depressed, they may take to extreme eating habits as a way of coping. This can be eating an excessive amount of food or just not eating at all. Rather than jump to conclusions or make it an issue about weight, approach them gently about the change — it may be linked to depression or an eating disorder.
Your teen showing a sudden weight gain or loss can also signal the reasons behind their mental health issues associated with depression and eating disorders. There are signs you can look for if you have suspicions of an eating disorder.
Eating Disorders and Depression
While they are not always directly linked to one another, depression and eating disorders may be present in your teen’s life. An eating disorder is tied to a larger emotional or stress-related issue, whether it be a current stressor in their life or a significant past event. Teens who are experiencing anxiety or depression are more likely to develop eating disorders.
Signs to watch for:
- Hyper-focus on food
- Sudden changes in weight
- Excessive exercise
- Eating large amounts of food, or severely limiting the intake of food
Another reason behind an eating disorder, and depression, is negative self-image. Keep reading to find how it can impact both.
Possible Cause: Negative Self-Image
Teens are at an age where comparison comes naturally. From comparing themselves to peers to public figures they see on the internet and social media, teens can quickly get down on themselves when they find people with “better hair” or more followers. If teens are connecting their self-worth to these features, they may be building a negative self-image, which is a common cause of depression among teens.
Is there anything or anyone to blame for a teen’s negative self-image? Perhaps…
Social Media and Depression in Teens
A study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology linked social media and teens’ mental well-being (depression and loneliness). A more recent study from researchers at the University College London and Imperial College London focused more on the behaviors associated with social media and how they contribute to depression. Behavior such as comparison and cyberbullying can be tied to depression in teens.
Learn about the dangerous connection between cyberbullying and depression.
Cyberbullying and Depression
Social media makes it a lot easier for bullying to take place outside of school. Cyberbullying can be quite hard to catch onto, but if you are monitoring your teen’s social media, you may see glimpses of red flags. Sometimes more bold bullies will leave harsh comments and replies to posts, or directly message your teen with ill intent.
Cyberbullying, just like its offline counterpart, can have plenty of negative influence on your teen. Not only can they feel isolated from their peers by being shunned online, but they can also have lower self-esteem from cyberbullying, potentially causing them to feel depressed.
4. Changes in Sleep Patterns
Your child’s sleep pattern can get pretty erratic as they grow older. Whether it be them spending more time on their devices into the late hours of the night or stressing over a growing pile of schoolwork, sleep patterns are bound to change.
However, if they are spending excessive amounts of time sleeping — regularly sleeping hours into the afternoon or having their night and day reversed — it should be a cause for concern.
A lack of sleep could even be contributing to their depression, find out how in the next slide.
Possible Cause: Lack of Sleep
According to a Standford Medicine report, the American Academy of Pediatrics called sleep deprivation in teens a “public health” epidemic as it threatened the health and safety of youth. They found that a lack of sleep led to poorer academic performance, depression, and irritability.
5. Displaying Reckless Behavior
You know how your teen usually behaves, so if they are suddenly sneaking out in the middle of the night, “borrowing” your car at random, and behaving more recklessly than usual, you should definitely be concerned. Don’t just chalk it up to the teenage rebellion talked about in movies — it could very well be a sign of depression for teens.
You may be tipped off to reckless behavior by your teen’s school if they call to inform you about several missed attendances.
6. Substance Abuse
Substance abuse is usually detected when your teen starts consuming large amounts of alcohol or drugs. This could be your teen just trying to experiment or succumbing to peer pressure, but it can also be your teen attempting to self-medicate for their current emotional state.
If you recognize signs of substance abuse in your teen, take action to get them the help they need — for the substance and for the possible mental health issues behind it.
Sudden changes in behavior are not the only common signs of depression in teens. Sudden changes in their language or excessive swearing may be another sign.
Possible Cause: Substance Abuse
Abusing drugs and alcohol can actually contribute to depression. If a teen is depressed, they can fall into substance abuse. If they are already abusing drugs or alcohol, they are more vulnerable to depression. Here are some common signs of substance abuse in teens.
Signs of Teen Substance Abuse
Your teen most likely won’t openly discuss their drug use with you, but there are still signs you can look out for, including:
- Changes in behavior, such as being more secretive
- Poor academic performance
- Evidence of drug use: rolling papers, lighters, pipes, needles
- Strange smells
Now back to signs of depression to watch for.
7. Lack of Energy/Fatigue
Plenty of changes in behavior can be chalked up to a lack of energy and fatigue, which can be seen as a possible sign of depression. With depression, individuals lack the motivation or interest to get things down, from everyday tasks of cleaning up after themselves to partaking in social situations.
There can also be other causes for your teen’s fatigue.
Possible Cause: Chronic Illness
According to the Cleveland Clinic, around one-third of individuals with chronic illness experience symptoms of depression. For teens, they may feel alienated from their peers because of their illness, or that their illness holds them back from living how they want to. Chronic illnesses can cause depression in teens, especially if they are having a hard time adjusting.
Possible Cause: Brain Chemistry
Teenage depression isn’t always caused by something you can see going on in their life. Brain chemistry can play a large part. Chemical substances released in the brain are called neurotransmitters and when they are abnormal, they are known to misfire. Misfiring then leads to depression. Low thyroid levels from preexisting medical conditions can create impaired neurotransmitters.
Self-harm is a blaring sign of depression in teens. Sadly, self-harm can be done through multiple methods (cutting, burning, starving themselves) and not always in visible ways. If you notice new or repeating injuries on your child’s body, it’s something that should be addressed promptly.
Possible Cause: Early Childhood Trauma
If your teen has experienced trauma from physical or emotional abuse, such as loss of a parent or assault, they may be more vulnerable to depression during their teen years. This can be the case especially if they were unable to cope with the trauma due to lack of professional help or being closed off.
If the trauma has been “dealt” with, you should still be on alert. Trauma does not just go away, nor should you expect it to. New triggers in later years can reintroduce past trauma, cause depression in teens.
9. Neglecting Personal Hygiene
If you notice your teen has been skipping out on their personal hygiene routine, it can be a sign of depression. This may be more noticeable in girls than in boys. For example, if your teen regularly spends her morning getting ready for the day — picking an outfit, styling her hair, doing her makeup — and suddenly drops her morning routine, it is a cause for worry.
Depression can often cause individuals to shut themselves out from the outside world. Your teen may show this by refusing to spend time with the family, dropping out of extracurricular activities, and stopping their hangouts with friends. This is especially noticable if they are typically an extrovert.
Teens overthinking about their place within their social circles may also be the reason contributing to their depression.
Possible Cause: Social Status
Teens are at a time of their lives where they constantly worry about their status among their peers, both offline and online. It’s no secret that social media has amplified the role that social status plays on mental health, because young people often feel the need to always be “on.”
Craving acceptance from peers is the norm, and no one wants to feel left out. Feeling unliked or ignored can cause teens to retreat into themselves, and also be a cause of depression.
11. They Believe Life is Meaningless
If your teen truly believes that there is no meaning to life, it’s time to get them some professional help. When they believe that life has no meaning, they will most likely already be displaying some of the changes in behavior described previously.
Possible Cause: Sudden, Large Life Changes
Some life changes are unavoidable — parents going through a divorce, moving towns and leaving friends behind, and so on. These sudden life changes can have a very large impact on your child’s wellbeing and mental health.
While you may not be able to stop the change from happening, you can definitely help them cope with that change.
12. They Express Self-deprecation
Depression can generate thoughts of worthlessness, which your teen may be openly expressing. They may be commenting on how ugly they think they are, or that they can never do something right. It might seem like an offhand comment or joke at the time, but if they are continuously mentioning things along this theme, it might be a good time to intervene.
Not all signs of depression lead to “tangible” causes that are easy to pick up on. Keep reading for more unexpected causes of teenage depression.
Possible Cause: Environmental Factors
Recent studies from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center have linked air pollution to child depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, children living in poorer neighborhoods are even more vulnerable to the effects, with heavy smog shown to cause anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
Possible Cause: Genetics
Depression can run in the family. If you know that there is a family history of depression, be sure to keep an eye out for your teen. It’s something you may want to take preventative action with — start a conversation on family history and let your teen know that it is perfectly okay to reach out when they need help.
These signs and causes of teenage depression can create great concern. However, there is always hope. If you believe your teen needs help, keep reading for resources you can use.
Possible Cause: COVID-19 Pandemic
The outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) is stressful for many people, having varying impacts on each person depending on their life circumstances. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified groups that may respond more strongly to the stress of a crisis:
- Older people and people with chronic diseases who are at higher risk for COVID-19.
- Children and teens.
- People who have mental health conditions including problems with substance use.
There are multiple stressors associated with the pandemic, including: worry over health, worsening of chronic health problems, sudden changes in routine and financial problems.
COVID-19’s Impact on Mental Health
David Kessler, an expert on grief and co-founder of grief.com, spoke with Harvard Business Review about what people are feeling during the current pandemic.
Kessler stated that people are feeling more than one kind of grief, including “anticipatory grief.” This is defined as “that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain.” It can be centered around death, like that of a loved one, or imagined futures. In a time where predictions are ever-changing, anticipatory grief is felt by many, including teens.
For teens and younger ones, their everyday lives have been upended abruptly. They can’t go to school, can’t see their friends or participate in their extracurricular activities. The sudden change of putting their life on hold can cause a great deal of stress.
You may think that the sudden stress your child is experiencing will automatically result in depression, but experts have provided other explanations for what teens (and everyone else) is experiencing.
The CDC suggests the following to parents that want to help their teens:
- Take time to talk with your child or teen about the COVID-19 outbreak. Answer questions and share facts about COVID-19 in a way that your child or teen can understand.
- Try to keep up with regular routines. If schools are closed, create a schedule for learning activities and relaxing or fun activities.
- Be a role model. Take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and eat well. Connect with your friends and family members.
Helping Your Depressed Teen
The signs listed above are not one-size-fits-all. Your teen may be showing multiple of them or none at all. The cause of their depression can be even less clear. You can’t always help your teen by yourself, so seek help through health professionals who can give your teen the support they really need.
A school’s counseling center or family doctor can be a good starting place if you are lost on how to connect your teen to help. They can connect you with the resources you may need to start.
If your teen has openly expressed suicidal thoughts, you should seek immediate medical help. Call either 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) in the US.
Signs of Depression in Teens — Sources
National Institute of Mental Health
Mental Health America
Harvard.edu — What causes depression?
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Everyday Health — Sleep Patterns
Help Guide — Reckless Behavior
CDC — COVID-19
Harvard Business Review