Teenagers and Depression
Teenagers and depression. It’s a common pair for an understandable reason. Being thirteen to nineteen is so hard. There is so much pressure. Parental pressure. Peer pressure. Kids want to please their parents while they rebel against them. Kids want to fit in with their peers while at the same time figuring out who they are.
If this is not enough, add in the fact that kids are pressured to drink, have sex, join gangs and do drugs. And the drugs are no longer strictly alcohol and pot. No, cocaine, ectasy, heroin, oxycontin and more have been added. Additionally, cool kids are pressured to be mean to those friends who are no longer ‘cool,’ and awful to the kids who have always been ‘dorks.’ And kids who are not cool are often tormented for having the audacity to be fat or having pimples or being too smart or having learning disabilities. And this is just peer pressure.
From their parents, kids are pressured to do well in school, participate in sports, hold a job, ignore peer pressure, figure out what they might want to do with their lives and smile the majority of the time. And this is whether they are living with a single parent who is gone the majority of the time because she has to work so much or with two parents. When there are two parents, it is not uncommon for the parents to fight, sometimes viciously, sometimes violently, sometimes resulting in one or the other walking out.
Kids take in their surroundings and get really sad. Kids with a predisposition to depression get really said. Teens and depression. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
What Do Depressed Teenagers Do?
So what do depressed kids do? This I can answer from the cuff because I am a parent, an adolescent and adult therapist and a former emergency room psychiatric screener, meaning I was the person to whom kids talked when they were brought to the ER.
When teens are depressed, they usually do one of two things: turn inward or act out. What does each look like?
Depressed kids who turn inward often start avoiding their friends. They spend a lot of time in their rooms alone. Sometimes their music gets moodier. They quit outside activities. They start sleeping a lot or find themselves up in the middle of the night. They cry. Their appetite changes. They eat a lot more or a lot less. They get more irritable. They stop sharing their thoughts. Their grades drop. Sometimes, they experiment with cutting. Sometimes they drink or do drugs, often in their rooms by themselves. Other times, they think about dying.
Depressed kids who act out often start hanging with different kids. Wilder kids. They start drinking, smoking pot or doing other drugs. They skip school. They start missing their curfews. They get rude. They start going out night after night. Their teachers see a difference. Their grades slip. They, too, can think about dying.
How Do You Help a Depressed Teenager?
There are two firsts and foremosts: A depressed kid needs to know he is not alone. More importantly, he needs to know he is not crazy. In a kid’s world, there are the ‘normals’ and the ‘crazies.’ Kids are terrified of being in the latter category.
Parents need to try and listen without judgment. Kids think that parents judge everything they do. If you are a parent, just try listening. Your job is not to solve. Your job is to let your child talk and hear what he says.
Share your own experiences. We’ve all been there when our friends have turned on us or someone we loved stopped loving us back. Share that ‘pit in your stomach’ experience. Acknowledge that the feeling is awful.
Encourage the teenager to talk to his friends. Friends get it.
Tell the teenager that if he wants to talk, you’ll find someone for him. Make it clear that therapists don’t judge. Their job is to help those in pain.
If the teenager is cutting, take it seriously, but don’t overreact. Most teenagers cut for one of two reasons. Some do it to let out pain. Others, who have covered their hurts with a protective numbing, cut so as to feel something. Acknowledge that the teenager really must be in pain if he is cutting. Suggest that sharing his feelings with someone may help him to stop cutting.
Suggest that medications, even in the very short term, can help. Make clear that most people you know take medication for something. If the teenager is receptive, make an appointment with your primary care or a psychiatrist.
If the teenager is contemplating or has attempted suicide, take him on his word. It is not up to you to decide if he really means it. If he has a therapist, call her or take him to an emergency room. There he will meet with a psychiatric screener who, along with the doctor, will determine if he needs to be hospitalized for safety.