Advice Column, Parenting, Tween & Teen

What to do if your teenager is depressed

Growing up can be an emotional rollercoaster, during which a young person has to contend with many high and lows, from school and friendships to puberty and their sexuality. If you have noticed that your teenager seems to be experiencing more lows than highs, and these lows are happening more and more frequently, this may be a sign that they are struggling with depression.

It can be distressing to watch your teenager feel constantly sad and low. However, it’s important to know that you’re not alone, and the most important step you can take to help is to seek help. 

Here, we provide information on the symptoms of depression in teenagers to look out for, as well as guidance on the ways that you can support them.

What does depression feel like for your teenager?

Whilst it’s normal to feel sad occasionally, the intense and overwhelming low moods that depression causes can stop your teenager from getting pleasure from things they usually enjoy. This all-encompassing sadness can also prevent them from being able to function and perform daily tasks.

We have outlined what depression actually feels like for a teenager to help you understand what they may be going through:

  • For young people, depression can feel like they have a sieve in their head, which washes away all positive reinforcements and keeps hold of all negativity, which they focus on and magnify
  • A teenager may feel like they are wearing a mask in front of friends. They will put on this brave face to cover up how they really feel, as they believe that they will be a burden if they show their real mood. This mask can be exhausting to wear, so by the time they come home they often can’t keep it up, meaning that you are likely to see the true picture
  • Many young people describe depression as being tortured in their head. Anything that they hear gets turned into something negative, and even if they are told by a specialist that their depression is treatable, they believe that they’re the only one that can’t get better

Signs of depression in children

If you are becoming increasingly worried about your teenager, we have outlined common symptoms that they may be experiencing and warning signs for you to look out for: 

Psychological symptoms:

  • Persistent sadness, or low mood 
  • Anger and irritability
  • Crying more than usual
  • Being highly sensitive to bad news or rejection
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor concentration
  • Indecisiveness
  • Feeling empty or numb
  • Self-harming
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Drugs or alcohol abuse

Social symptoms:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Lacking interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • Poor performance and behaviour at school or college

Physical symptoms:

  • Insomnia, or sleeping more than usual
  • Frequent headaches and stomach aches
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Unexplained digestive problems
  • Exhaustion
  • Lethargy
  • Restlessness

I think my teenager is depressed – what are the next steps?

Talk to your child

If you’re worried, sit down with your child and calmly explain that you’re concerned because they don’t seem to be themselves lately. If they’re willing to open up to you, try to find out how they are feeling and what is troubling them, and let them know that you’re always there to talk. If your teenager doesn’t want to talk to you, encourage them to speak to someone else they trust, such as another parent or a teacher. 

Take them seriously 

If you haven’t experienced depression yourself, it can be difficult to understand what your teenager is going through. Something that doesn’t seem to be a problem to you could be a major issue for your child, which is why it’s important to take them seriously and avoid being judgemental or critical. 

Be open and listen

If your teenager wants to talk to you about their problems, it’s important to be open with them and listen to what they have to say. This lets them know it’s OK to talk about how they’re feeling, and they’re not alone. 

Learn the symptoms

By familiarising yourself with the symptoms of teenage depression, not only will this help you to empathise with your child, but will also mean that you are able to spot when they’re going through a particularly difficult time. It can also help you to manage expectations, and understand that it’s possible that things may get worse for your teenager before they get better.

Reduce risks

Give them the phone numbers for charities such as LifeLine, and encourage them to call if they ever need to. You could also give them useful apps to look at such as Headspace or Mindspot.

If they have thoughts about harming themselves, ask them to share those thoughts with you in a way that they feel comfortable with, so you can help keep them safe. They could write their thoughts down, send them in a text message or email, or talk to you about them when they’re feeling calm and perhaps distracted with an activity. 

Things you can do to reduce risks include locking away any medication and asking the young person what websites they are accessing online, and talking through whether these are really helpful to them or not. 

It’s also important to establish the best way that you, as a parent, can support your teenager. Ask them what you can do to help; they may just want hugs, a distraction such as watching a film with you or not to be left alone at night time. 

Seek help

It’s crucial to seek professional help if you think your child is struggling with depression. This will ensure that they receive the support they need to prevent their depression from becoming worse. Make an appointment to see your GP; they will be able to recommend next steps. 

Also, reassure your teenager that depression is treatable and advise them that it would be worth taking them to a doctor to find out if they have depression, and if so, to get them the right support.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg is a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Priory Group Associate Medical Director. She has been a consultant Child and Adolescent psychiatrist since 2010, initially working in the NHS in Oxford, prior to moving to the Priory Group, where she currently works at Priory Group Wellbeing Centre Oxford as well as other Priory locations.

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