Being a teenager isn’t easy. As teens face new challenges and social pressures, their growing bodies are changing rapidly. The hormonal changes associated with puberty may also cause feelings of sadness or frustration, making teens moody or irritable.
“For some, this moodiness or sadness is more than just a phase or a bad attitude that will go away,” said Dr. Laura Rocker, a pediatric psychiatrist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “It could be an early warning sign of depression.”
Sometimes anxiety disorders and depression go hand-in-hand, but one can occur without the other. Seeking treatment at the first sign of a problem can be more effective and prevent problems later in a child’s life.
Depression can occur at any age, but teens can be more susceptible. Significant life-changing events can trigger depression, such as the death of a loved one, their parents’ divorce, a move to a new area or even a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend.
For some teens, it can start without an outside influence. Depression and other mental illnesses also tend to run in families.
“In many cases, teens may not have the coping skills to handle setbacks, both major and minor, which could lead to depression,” said Dr. Rocker.
How can parents tell if their children are experiencing typical teenage emotions or something more?
“We look at whether how they’re feeling is affecting daily functioning,” said Dr. Rocker. “Are they isolating themselves from friends and family? Are they having trouble concentrating or completing school assignments?”
A teen who’s sad or moody will still enjoy going out with friends or a favorite activity. One who is depressed won’t.
Other warning signs of depression include:
- Increased or persistent irritability
- Declining school performance
- Persistent helpless or hopeless attitude
- Gloomy moods that continue for 2 weeks without improvement
- Sudden lack of interest in activities outside of school
- Lack of motivation or energy
- Abrupt changes in behavior, including withdrawal from activities or extreme hyperactivity
- Dramatic changes in grooming
- Low self-esteem
- Spending more time alone than usual
- Unusually erratic or impulsive behavior
- Fits of crying
- Changes in sleep habits or appetite
Teens who have multiple warning signs or symptoms that are extreme or long lasting should be evaluated by a healthcare professional. Sometimes depression causes physical symptoms such as stomachaches or headaches, so a doctor can determine if there’s an underlying physical cause.
Talk to your teen about what’s going on, without making her feel there’s something wrong with her or that she’s in trouble. Be supportive and honest and keep the lines of communication open.
In some cases, the signs of depression may be more obvious.
“A teen may state that he’s feeling depressed or even suicidal,” Dr. Rocker said. “Take him seriously and seek help.”
Understanding anxiety disorders
All of us experience a certain amount of anxiety from time to time. It can helps us perform better, such as when preparing for a test or giving a presentation. It can also keep us on guard in potentially dangerous situations.
However, if your child’s worries become overwhelming or seem like they’re running her life, it could be an anxiety disorder. Stressful events can trigger an anxiety disorder, but there isn’t always a specific cause.
Feelings of fear, worry, panic or intense stress can interfere with sleep, appetite and concentration. They may also cause headaches, nausea and sweating.
It becomes a problem when the fears are unrealistic or irrational and cause a high level of distress that interferes with daily life.
Teens with anxiety disorders are at higher risk for poor school performance and substance abuse. They may also have less developed social skills and low self-esteem.
If your teen is suffering from anxiety or depression, don’t wait to seek help. Early diagnosis and treatment can help your child overcome these issues and develop the coping skills she needs to face life’s challenges now and through adulthood.
“Trust your instincts,” said Dr. Rocker. “If you suspect there’s a problem, there probably is.”