Depressed Teenagers

Written by Dr. Sidney Langston   

Peter, a 17-year-old senior, is suddenly faced with the break up of his parents’ 24-year marriage. He is angry, moody, withdrawn and disinterested in his senior year activities.

Angela, a high school junior, is dating a young man that her parents strongly dislike. She sneaks around to see him and has begun to lie to her parents. As a result her relationship with her parents is breaking down. She cries a lot and is having trouble sleeping and making decisions.

In the past, professionals and parents thought this was rebellious acting-out behavior. The truth of the matter is that both of these teenagers are depressed. Ross Campbell in his book, “How to Really Love Your Teenager,” identifies this as a masked depression. If such a depression goes undetected, the acting-out symptoms may be addressed, but the underlying depression will go untreated. Because these youths mask their pain so well, they will probably never be able to tell you that they feel sad or depressed.

Is it Depression?

Adolescent depression can be recognized by the following symptoms: shortened attention span; distractibility; withdrawal from significant others; physical complaints such as headaches and gastrointestinal problems; lack of ambition and drive; dejection; loss of interest in normal activities; increased irritability and hostility; intolerance for frustration; increased sleeping or insomnia; unprovoked or continuous crying; self starvation or over-eating; lethargy and low energy levels; inability to enjoy anything pleasurable; and poor grades.

The following behaviors are some of the defenses used by adolescents to cover their depression: extreme restlessness; nothing holds their interest; drug and alcohol abuse; affiliation with an undesirable peer group; participation in delinquent behavior just for kicks; sexual promiscuity; and aggressive or destructive acts to vent anger.

The first step in treatment for a teen exhibiting the behaviors symptomatic of depression is to get an accurate diagnosis through a clinical evaluation by a professional. Sometimes the problem can be relieved through counseling with the parents. A change in the parent’s attitude and/or approach to discipline and home life may produce a change in the child’s behavior. Unnecessary counseling of teenagers often can give them the message that they are sick and only serves to aggravate the problem.

However, if the depression lasts longer than 3 or 4 weeks something must be done. Delays in treatment can lead to chronic depression and could result in suicide—which is on the increase among adolescents. More girls than boys attempt suicide, but more boys succeed in the attempt.

What can I do?

In dealing with depressed teens it is important to help them develop a healthy sense of self esteem. Parents can help by talking to them on their level and listening to their opinions and feelings. Teens need to know that the important adults in their lives understand their pain despite the generation gap.

Parents and teens can learn how to respond to conflicts through negotiated contracts. Have them write out a list of freedoms they want or social changes they desire. Work with them to set appropriate short and long-term goals. This helps the child to know what is expected and gives them a sense of age-appropriate control and direction.

Teach them to express feelings constructively in an appropriate tone of voice. We told our children they could say anything they wanted to us as parents, as long as they said it with respect. Teens can learn to agree to disagree and still be friendly, respectful and cooperative.

An important adolescent developmental task involves differentiating from parents and finding one’s own identity. Thus it is important to facilitate “creative rebellion.” Devise ways to begin to treat your teen as an adult in selected settings. This allows them to test the waters, and allows you to evaluate how they are doing and assess what gaps remain. Depression is relieved and behavior is modified as trust develops between parent and child. In order for this process to work, parents must have resolved their own unfinished business from adolescence.

What is the prognosis for teen depression?

Without treatment teens will carry their dissatisfaction and dysfunction into adulthood and pass it on to their children. However, if the depression is diagnosed and treated early, teens can adjust and heal.

Hart, Archibald, D. (1987).  Counseling the depressed. Dallas:  Word Publishers.

“Reaching Newsletter,” (Feb. 1993). Clarkston, GA:  Children’s Ministries Intl.

Copyright 1993, El Rophe Center, Inc.