Help your teenager

How to spot signs of depression in your teen

With COVID upon us, it may be extra hard to spot signs of depression in your teen. For what it’s worth, here are a few of the early warning signs I missed in my own daughter.

Helpguide.org lists the common signs of depression to watch out 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, if they last two weeks or longer, 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
  • withdrawal from everyday activities
  • risky behaviour, drug or alcohol use

My daughter, pre-COVID, showed none of these common signs of depression. She had straight As, friends, and an afterschool babysitting job. She went out and regularly attended school. At home, she took care of her brother, did her homework, and rarely acted out.

I never would have known she was depressed until, ever responsible, she asked me for help.

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 very 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 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 she was struggling, and had I known how long it can takes to find professional help that helps, I can’t help but think these last five years might have been different.

With twenty-twenty hindsight, here are some of her early warning signs of depression.

A change in character

Teenagers are moody, there’s no question. And COVID isn’t helping. But if you think back to how your teenager was as a toddler or a little kid and you realize something’s missing for weeks on end, something may be amiss. Maybe they’ve lost their sense of humour or curiosity or competition or natural ability to bounce back.

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 knew early puberty could be challenging for girls, but it was my in-laws (a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst) 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.

An obsession with social media

My daughter was obsessed with long-running streaks on Snap Chat. Like obsessed! At the time we thought nothing of it. It was 2015. Snap Chat was relatively new. Instagram still allowed pictures of self-harm.

It wasn’t until she was hospitalized that we realized how dependent she’d become on her virtual world. And what she was consuming.

While today, there are no shortage of articles that detail the risks of excessive screen time for kids, COVID has certainly complicated things. It’s the only way your kids can stay connected to their friends and socially active — also important for their mental health. So what do you do as a parent?

My advice is watch what they’re doing online and who they’re following. How do they react to incoming messages? What happens when you take their phone away? If you’re seeing reactions that concern you, be concerned.

The tip of the iceberg

Finally, I’d keep in mind that what your teenager is telling you and what you’re seeing, is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

When my daughter asked me for help, she was well down the road of depression. It makes sense to me now. Both that she held off in asking for me help and that when she did there was a whole lot more beneath the surface than what she was telling me.

If your teenager is typically high functioning like mine, be aware that their self-control, responsibility and maturity may be preventing them from asking you for help. They may feel they can handle things on their own. They may also encourage them to seek out their own resources, which, with the internet, can lead them down some pretty frightening paths.

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