Growing up isn’t easy. It certainly wasn’t in my case. Without a doubt, my teenage years were the hardest years of my life. I was always an extremely shy, quiet kid growing up, a condition that made me an easy target for some. School was in many ways a nightmare for me, as I was bullied mercilessly by my peers from the time I was in grade school up until about my sophomore year of high school.
By the time I was 13 years old, I was fairly withdrawn and struggling mightily with depression and chronic thoughts of suicide. I can’t count the number of hours I spent staring at the ceiling of my bedroom as a teen, fantasizing of the day I would eventually escape my misery. Several times I found myself with my father’s gun in my hands, warring with myself over whether to pull the trigger in order to end the overwhelming pain I felt.
Here’s the especially scary thing: I never told my parents about any of this. As a teenager, I never shared any of my personal struggles with them. I never talked to any of my teachers. I never talked to any of my school counselors. And I never really even fully opened up about my feelings with any of the few friends I had.
On the outside, I looked fairly normal to the untrained eye in many ways. I did well in school, had a fairly high GPA, was involved in extracurricular activities, attended church and youth group, and even went out on occasion with friends. Yet through it all, I dreamed incessantly during those years about taking revenge on my enemies and of escaping the pain I carried inside of me – permanently. In a lot of ways, I guess you could say that in terms of depression, I was a parent’s worst nightmare.
Now, I’m betting there are a lot of you out there who are shaking your heads right now. How can parents honestly know if their teenage son or daughter is struggling with depression (especially since many, like in my case, don’t tend to talk)? Well, the fact of the matter is that there are signs and symptoms (and yes, there were even in my case). I’ve spent most of my life working with young people, so allow me to share a bit of my experience with you and give you some stuff you ought to pay particular attention to:*
*[Note: If a teen is truly depressed, you will see several of these signs – not just one. Look for clusters of behaviors and a consistent overall pattern (or theme) over time.]
Signs of Teen Depression
Changes in Appearance
If there is an overall theme that characterizes the teenage years, it’s identity. Teens are constantly asking themselves the question, “Who am I?” and are seeking to establish an identity of their own. Their overall sense of identity can be very fluid at this point in their lives and they tend to have an insatiable need for approval – especially from their peers.
If you have teenagers or have been around them, you know that one of the things that they tend to care about the most is their appearance. The type of clothes they choose to wear, the appearance of their hair, their face, and so on can be extremely important for a lot of teens. Now appearances can change quite a lot during the teenage years, as young people are constantly trying out new things in their seemingly endless quest to figure out who they are. But if you have a youngster who used to look one way and suddenly changed and looks totally different (or does not appear to care about their appearance at all) … make a note of that and pay attention for other signs and symptoms of depression.
Loss of Interest in School, Grades, Extracurricular Activities, Etc.
Teenagers tend to find their identity in a number of different places. Some find their sense of self worth in academic success. Some find it through sports. Some find it through their hobbies … or their lifelong dreams. The key question to ask yourself is, “What has always been most important to my youngster?”
Some care passionately about their grades, while with others, it’s sports, or cars, or animals, or their lifelong dream of being an astronaut someday. If your teenager seems to have suddenly lost complete interest in the thing that once used to bring them excitement and joy – sit up and take notice.
General Sense of Apathy
Perhaps it’s not just loss of interest in one thing, though – it’s a general lack of interest in everything. If your teenager used to be goal-driven and energetic and no longer has that zest for life, take heed. Apathy towards life in general is a classic sign.
Expressions of hopelessness, worthlessness, or lack of self worth
One thing I would definitely tell parents is to pay particular attention to the messages that consistently come from your youngster. Now, teenagers who are upset can say a lot of things in the heat of the moment that they’ll later regret and don’t truly mean. But if phrases like, “I don’t care anymore,” “So what,” “Nothing matters,” “Nobody cares,” “I wish I was never born,” “I’m such an idiot,” and so on constantly seem to be spilling forth from your teenager’s mouth – that may be an indicator of depression.
Excessive Blame, Shame, and Guilt
People with low self esteem and depression often have a tendency to fixate on things they’ve done wrong in the past (even if they’ve been forgiven for them long ago). They may be quick to assume the blame (even for things that clearly aren’t their fault) and seem to carry guilt and shame around like an ever present chain around their necks. If your teenager feels like nothing they do is ever good enough and that they are always burdened with feelings of guilt and shame, that too is a classic sign of depression.
Communication experts generally agree that over 80% of our communication is nonverbal – not simply the actual words that we say. A person’s tone of voice, posture, facial expressions, energy level, and overall demeanor can speak volumes about how they are truly feeling and doing. So, if your teenager generally walks around looking fairly listless, with their head down, not smiling, not making eye contact when speaking, looking sad, appearing on the verge of tears most of the time, those are often telltale signs of depression.
Sadness and Tearfulness
During the teenage years, young people are undergoing all kinds of physiological changes. Never again in their entire lifetime will their hormone levels be as high as they are during the teenage years. Increased hormone levels can make both teenage girls and boys extremely emotional during this time.
It’s normal for girls to often cry. In fact, it has even been said that it can be healthy for them to have a good cry. What’s not normal is for them to cry and to be on the verge of tears virtually all the time. If your teenager looks sad or is tearful seemingly 24/7, they may in fact be struggling with depression.
Irritability, Defensiveness, Extreme Sensitivity, and Aggression
Sadness doesn’t always express itself with tears. This is particularly true with boys as they tend to have higher levels of testosterone than girls do. The testosterone hormone is what naturally makes men generally stronger, more aggressive, and gives them stronger libidos than girls. As a result, many men and boys tend to express their emotions in ways that tend to be much more aggressive in nature than girls.
Teenagers (particularly teenage boys) can be quite irritable, sensitive, and aggressive at times. During times of extreme stress, some might scream and yell, punch walls, smash things, rip things up, and/or perhaps in some cases carve their initials in some beloved piece of furniture. Though aggressive tendencies may be normal for some teens, keep in mind that it could be depression expressing itself through aggressive behavior.
Destructive, Dangerous, and Self Harming Behaviors
Teenagers in general tend to have a sense of invincibility. Many young people feel like they’re going to live forever and that nothing in the world can harm them. As a result, we tend to see them do things during their teenage years that when they’re adults they may look back later on and say to themselves, “That was stupid.” But teenagers who are particularly struggling with depression may (consciously or unconsciously) act in ways that can be quite self destructive.
With boys, this could include things such as daredevil stunts, jumping off heights that would be inadvisable, driving at insane speeds, and so on. With girls, we may see things such cutting on themselves, being extremely sexually promiscuous, or substance abuse. Alcohol and prescription and/or illicit drug use is very commonly seen with teens who are struggling with depression. If your teenager is regularly abusing alcohol or drugs, know that they may in fact be using them as a way to cope with their underlying depression.
Some people are naturally introverted by nature. For introverts, social interaction can tend to be draining for them. They need periods of isolation in order to recharge their batteries before they are emotionally able to give of themselves again. That’s normal. But if you find that your little bear is spending nearly all of their available free time all alone in their cave and doesn’t appear to care about being with other people, it may be more than simply brief hibernation.
Eating and Sleeping Habits
A person’s eating and sleeping habits can be greatly impacted by depression. Some people may eat to excess to deal with their emotional baggage while others will cope by doing the exact opposite. Excessive eating, bulimia, and anorexia nervosa are all conditions that many teenage girls struggle with that have associated depression at their roots.
Excessive sleep, increased fatigue, and disrupted sleep patterns are also common signs of those who are struggling with depression. People tend to need more sleep during their teenage years (on average 8-10 hours/night). But if you’re finding your teenager tends to sleep all day long, has great difficulty getting to sleep at night, wakes up frequently during the middle of the night, or used to sleep well, but now doesn’t, those could all be possible signs of depression.
Art, Writing, and Reading Content
The creative arts can often be a marvelous window into the mind of an artist. If your son or daughter is the creative type, pay attention to what they may be drawing, writing about, and/or reading about. That extremely detailed drawing of the teenager who successfully committed suicide or that poem about the 14-year-old girl who feels isolated and all alone may in fact only be art, or it may turn out to be something far more.
This is another often overlooked area that can actually be a major indicator of depression. If parents are trying to figure out if their teenager is depressed, they should stop and ask themselves, “What are they preoccupied with? How do they tend to spend their free time?” The following things can not only be expressions of depression, but also have a tendency to add fuel to depressive thoughts and feelings as well.
Pay particular attention to:
A) the type of music your teenager is listening to. Is it generally uplifting or more depressing in nature? What are the lyrics to those songs that they tend to listen to over and over again?
B) the kinds of movies and TV shows they are watching. Is your teenager obsessed with watching a particular show or movie (that may have disturbing, troubling, or depressing themes) repeatedly? If so, take note of it.
C) the kinds of video games they may be playing. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were two highly depressed teenagers who after years of being bullied by their classmates, decided to enact revenge upon them. A little known fact regarding the tragic shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 is that Harris and Klebold created and played customized versions of the game “Doom” in the months leading up to the shootings.
One level of the game that Harris created and played on a regular basis was an exact re-creation of the layout of the school. Now, I’m a big video game player myself, so I don’t want people to overreact here by thinking every moody teen who enjoys playing Call of Duty is suddenly going to morph into a school shooter. But if you as a parent are seeing your teenager being obsessed with violent video games in combination with many of the other signs and symptoms I’ve listed for you here, then I humbly suggest it’s probably time to seek professional assistance.
D) the nature of their online activities. We live in a cyber society today. The young people growing up in this brave new world both communicate by and express themselves predominantly through the internet. So as a parent, I would pay particular attention to the internet sites that your teenager is regularly visiting, who they are communicating with, and what messages they are sending out on their cell phones. If their Facebook page is dominated by depressing messages and they’re tweeting out pictures endorsing suicide, that’s a strong indicator you may have an issue on your hands.
How Counseling Can Help
If you as a parent are seeing your teenager displaying a number of these signs and symptoms, then might I humbly suggest that it’s probably time to seek outside assistance. As a parent myself, I know that it can be very hard to admit that we need help – especially when it comes to something as precious and close to our hearts as our kids.
I’ve found over time, however, that sometimes we as parents can be far too close to a situation (and far too emotionally involved and invested) to see things clearly. A trained counselor can assist in seeing where the problems lie and guide parents and teens along the path towards becoming a healthier and happier family.
The good news about depression is that it is a very treatable condition. It’s amazing to see that when clients are given a listening ear and shown true unconditional care and acceptance, how the chains around their hearts begin to loosen. But any therapy I as a counselor can offer pales in comparison to the healing power and the freedom that is offered only through our Wonderful Counselor, Jesus Christ. It was He who set me free from the icy talons of depression and suicide, and He can set your teenager free, too.
“Alone,” courtesy of Ezra Jeffrey, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Downcast,” courtesy of Chad Madden, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Concerned,” courtesy of Rahul Anil, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sad,” courtesy of Joyce Huis, unsplash.com, CC0 License