Understanding depression in teens: Strategies for parents and caregivers

This post was co-written by Ish Bhalla and Winston Lane.

During their teenage years, many kids grapple with bodily changes, peer pressure, conflicts with friends, academic anxiety and other stressors. It’s common for these difficulties to make them feel sad, anxious and irritable. But if your teen’s gloomy mood lasts for a few weeks or more, depression could be to blame.

Depression in teens is a serious concern. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 4.1 million adolescents aged 12–17 (or 17% of the U.S. population within this age range) had at least one major depressive episode in 2020. The prevalence was higher among adolescent females (25.2%) compared to males (9.2%), and highest among adolescents reporting two or more races (29.9%).

And rates are rising: In a 2021 survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42% of high school students said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and 22% admitted they experienced thoughts of self-harm. Again, female and multiracial students, as well as those who identify as LGBTQ+, were more likely to have experienced persistent negative feelings. Those who experience childhood trauma can also carry that harm well into their adult years if left unaddressed.

Depression can be a challenging and overwhelming experience for teenagers and their families. However, with the right strategies and support, parents and caregivers can help their kids navigate this difficult time. This starts with understanding the symptoms of depression in teens so you’re aware of when you might need to provide additional support.

Common physical and emotional symptoms of teen depression include:

Physical signs

  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Lack of energy
  • Memory loss

Emotional signs

  • Feelings of irritability, anger and sadness
  • Feelings of persistent worry and anxiousness
  • Changes in academic performance
  • Disinterest in once-loved hobbies
  • Withdrawal from friends and loved ones
  • Thoughts of self-harm

Depression in teens can be worrisome, but kids can work to feel better, especially when you stand by their side. Here’s how you can help.

Validate your teen’s feelings

Teen depression often sparks deep feelings of shame and embarrassment. As a result, your child may feel anxious about being judged or believe they’re flawed. They may also feel helpless, confused or frightened.

When your teen discloses any struggle or complaint, validate their feelings. Statements like, “I’m sorry you’re feeling this way,” or “It must be hard to feel so (upset, sad, angry, etc.)” can convey empathy and understanding.

Researchers report this plays a pivotal role in your teen’s recovery. For one, validating their feelings doesn’t minimize what they’re going through. Instead, it shows that you acknowledge their suffering and you’re trying to understand.

Practice active listening

When your teen talks, try to practice active listening.

Give them the gift of your undivided attention, and steer clear from interrupting. Words aren’t the only way to show them that you care. Non-verbal communication, like nodding and making eye contact, speaks volumes. It tells your teen that you value their thoughts and feelings, which gives them the “green light” to keep sharing.

Keep in mind that depression in teens can make kids hypersensitive to criticism. Therefore, if your child says they’re not sleeping, slacking on schoolwork or engaging in any harmful behavior, try to refrain from judgment. Instead, remind your child that you love them and you’ll help them find additional support.

Seek professional help

If your teen isn’t showering or getting out of bed, or if they are displaying any other concerning behaviors, contact your pediatrician or a behavioral health provider for guidance. If your teen expresses thoughts of suicide or self-harm, take these feelings seriously. Call 988 to seek emergency assistance.

For Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) members, care navigators can help you locate the right type of support or provider. Blue Cross NC members can log in to Blue Connect and fill out a mental health referral form. Look for “behavioral health support” under the “wellness” category and click into “care navigation.” After completing the form, a care navigator will contact you to help you find a provider or resources to meet your needs. Sometimes, you may have to try a few providers until you find one that aligns with your needs and expectations. Blue Cross NC care navigators will help make sure you find the right therapist or psychiatrist for long-term support. Our care navigation services are available to members of all ages, from children to geriatric members.

Depression is often treated with a combination of talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), antidepressant medication and lifestyle changes. CBT therapists can help teens reframe their distressing thoughts, which alters how they feel and behave. Your teen’s primary care provider can help advise you on the right treatment plan.

Encourage social support

Supportive and caring relationships with family members, teachers, coaches, community leaders and friends can also help teens manage their depression. Some kids might refrain from sharing everything with a parent. Therefore, encourage your child to cultivate a circle of support and participate in group activities they enjoy. Talking with a trusted friend, coach or counselor gives them another outlet and reminds them they’re not alone.

Depression in teens can be scary and overwhelming for your child and you as a caregiver. But your family doesn’t have to struggle alone. With the right strategies and support, you can help your teen navigate this challenging time and, ultimately, flourish into their best self.

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