Lessons learned, Understanding Depression

Lesson #1: How to spot signs of depression

Years ago, I worked with a woman who had a teenage daughter who had dropped out of school, slept all day, and refused to leave her basement.

In the morning, over coffee, my colleague would give me the latest on the home front, jokingly referring to her daughter as the basement dweller in a sort of exasperated way.

My own daughter was a toddler at the time, bright and sunshiny. I knew nothing about teenagers and nothing about depression. I had no idea what she or her daughter were going through.

Signs of depression in teenagers

Withdrawal from everyday activities. It a classic sign of depression.

Helpguide.org lists other signs of depression to watch for in your teen. It’s just one online resource. There are others, but they all say the same thing.

According to the experts, the most common signs of depression in teenagers are:

  • deep sadness
  • hostility or anger
  • changes in eating, sleeping habits or energy
  • lack of enthusiasm or motivation
  • poor school performance
  • withdrawal from friends and family

I’ve been over checklists like this one dozens of times. Still, I’m not sure I would have recognized depression in my own daughter until, ever responsible, she asked me for help.

She’s high functioning—a testament to her strength and will. She had straight As, friends, and a regular babysitting job. She went out and regularly attended school. At home, she took care of her brother, did her homework and rarely acted.

The one sign: she was irritable and had little interest in hanging out with her family. But she was thirteen. Wasn’t that to be expected?

Signs of depression may look different in different kids.

This was my first lesson in parenting depression. The illness may look different from one kid to the next. It may look different from the checklists, and it may look different in the beginning.

As I got to know my daughter’s new sidekick named depression, it became easier to spot signs of the illness in her life. To hear depression talking, or acting up, or showing its dominance.

But there’s the rub. Depression, left to its own devices, gets bolder, and stronger. It settles in.

Had I known earlier, and had I known how long it takes to get professional help, as all the guides tell you to do, I can’t help but think these last few years might have been different.

With twenty-twenty hindsight, here are what I consider to be the early warning signs that depression might latch on to my daughter. I don’t know if I could have prevented it, but I do think I might have caught it earlier.

A change in character

Teenagers are moody, there’s no question. But if you think back to how your teenager was as a toddler or a little kid and you realize something’s missing, something may be amiss. Maybe they’ve lost their sense of humour, curiosity or natural optimism. In my daughter’s case, it was her relentless and innate drive to achieve. She still had her foot on the gas, but she wasn’t gunning it like she had her entire life. She wasn’t doing any extracurriculars. That was a significant indicator, for her, that something was ‘off.’

Early onset puberty

I think I knew early puberty could cause problems for girls, but it was my in-laws who suggested it might also lead to depression. The National Centre for Biotechnology Information in the US has published a few studies that indicate, girls who experience early onset puberty, reaching a level of maturity before others their age, are at a higher risk for depression. However, the speed at which they go through the stages of puberty doesn’t seem to have an impact. The opposite, however, seems to be true for boys. So keep an eye on your boys as well.

Sleeping after school

I wrongly assumed changes in sleeping habits referred to kids not wanting to get out of bed in the morning or sleeping all day like my former colleague’s daughter. My daughter was up and ready for school like clockwork. She was also napping between school and dinner. I didn’t think much of it. She was often up late doing homework. Now I know that when she retreats to a dark room in the middle of the day, she’s feeling low.

An obsession with social media

While Instagram was named the worst app for mental health by the Royal Society for Public Health in the U.K., I’d also caution any parent whose kid is spending a lot of time on Snapchat. They may argue it’s how they communicate with friends, but if they’re taking pride in long-running streaks, my advice is to be wary! In my experience, those streaks are addictive and cause significant stress and anxiety. More important, if your kid keeps their phone in their room at night, you can be guaranteed it’s messing with their sleep. If you’re concerned about your kid’s smartphone use, read Lesson #5.

The tip of the iceberg

Not really a sign, but this is key. What your teenager is telling you and what you’re seeing, is only the tip of the iceberg.

If your child is high functioning like mind, be aware that that self-control, responsibility and maturity you see in them may prevent them from reaching out for help earlier. It may be telling them they can handle things on their own. It may also encourage them to seek out their own resources, which, with the internet, can lead them down some pretty frightening paths.

When and if they do reach out to you for help, my guess is there’s a lot more under the surface they’re not telling you.

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