Is your teen showing signs of depression? Find out what to look out for, how to encourage them to talk about it and how to offer support...
Being a teenager is rarely ever smooth sailing — in fact, it’s often very hard. From physical changes to peer pressure to academic expectations, adolescence is a time when many young people can feel lost at sea, far from the safer, more certain shores of childhood. It’s also natural for them to feel unsure about their future, their identity and which conflicting voice to listen to, from parents to friends to social media. This can sometimes result in issues with authority figures, mood swings and a tendency to withdraw from family activities.
What’s more, teens are going through intense brain changes, as outlined by Dr. Dan Siegel in his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. As a result, young adults are driven towards increased novelty seeking, socialising and exploring their creativity. They will also experience an upsurge in emotional intensity, which can be highly confusing. According to Siegel, when we are adolescents: ‘We lose our coordination and balance and our emotions act like a tsunami, flooding us with feelings. That’s when we get filled with not only mental excitement but also with mental confusion. Adolescence involves both types of brainstorms.’
He adds that at this time, the right support and guidance is everything because, ‘How we navigate the waters of adolescence — as young individuals on the journey or as adults walking with them — can help guide the ship that is our life into treacherous places or into exciting adventures. The decision is ours.’
Added to this, common teen issues around relationships, sex and sexuality can cause feelings of deep confusion, and this is often aggravated by images of physical perfection seen on Instagram. Many adolescents may also face issues around bullying, substance use and gender identity, all problems which they might struggle to talk about. Added to this, if a young person has a condition such as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), then they might find it harder to manage difficult feelings or integrate with their peers.
And of course, any stresses and strains at home — including conflicts between parents, blended family issues or having siblings with additional needs — can easily add to a sense of overwhelm. This is because a teenager’s relationship with their family is crucial in helping them to feel safe, develop a sense of identity and manage their emotions, so any tensions or unhappiness at home can have a huge impact on wellbeing (and can even impact on their future relationships in adulthood).
Yet it is important to remember that sometimes, what adults might label as ‘typical moody teen behaviour’ could actually be an indication that a young person is struggling with something more serious, such as depression, anxiety or stress. In fact, research carried out by Young Minds and The Children’s Society found that 1 in 6 children are likely to have a mental health problem and that 50% of those problems start by the age of 14.
And of course, the pandemic has put an added strain on many young people, separating them from their social group, daily routines and normal transitional experiences like high school graduation or first relationships. In fact, a late 2020 study by the Mental Health Foundation and Swansea University found that British teens have experienced worsening mental health over the course of the pandemic. It also found that out of 2,395 young people aged 13 to 19, 27% reported feeling ‘nervous, anxious or on edge’ nearly every day (which can be a symptom of depression). Post-Covid social anxiety is also an issue that many people are facing and some shyer, less confident teens may find it hard to adjust to leaving the safety of the ‘lockdown bubble’.
In fact, teenagers can actually experience the same mental health issues as adults, including depression, stress and anxiety. However, because they are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally, they often aren’t fully equipped to process their emotions and cope with life’s complex problems.But the question is, how can you tell the difference between natural adolescent turbulence and something more serious?
One way is by looking out for clusters of unusual or worrying behaviour, which can often be a signpost that something deeper is wrong.
So if you are worried about your teen and think that they might be depressed (or dealing with another mental health issue), then here are 12 key signs to look out for:
If a young person is showing even one of these signs, then it’s important to talk to them about it. However, finding a way to raise the issue is another matter, as there is a lot to consider before approaching an adolescent about such a sensitive subject.
For instance, It is possible that your teen might find it difficult to open up at first, so going about the conversation in the right way is crucial.
As a starting point, in this YouTube conversation between Gabor Maté and Gordon Neufel on Communicating with Teens, they recommend that you keep in mind that intellectual development and emotional development don’t actually progress at the same rate. In other words, even though your teen might understand adult concepts and seem mature on some levels, they could still have many of the same feelings and responses of a child (even if they try to conceal it).
Added to this, when children are younger their parents and caregivers are often used to being the person who solves their problems. But when they are teenagers, things become more complex. They could be resistant to what they see as a grown up ‘interfering’, may view it as a privacy violation and may be too embarrassed to talk about what is actually wrong.
They may also fear that because of a parent’s religion or world views, they could be angry when they find out the nature of the problem (for instance, gender and sexual identity issues or drug use). They could also be reluctant to worry their parents, or fear being punished, or believe that adults just won’t understand. And if there are pressures happening within the family as a whole (such as job loss, divorce or illness), then they may not want to feel like an ‘added burden’. Finally, if their low mood is related to school bullying, then they may be afraid to tell anyone for fear of things becoming worse. That is why patience (but not necessarily pushiness) is key when trying to find out what is troubling a young person.
Finally, bear in mind that even though your teen might seem focused on the opinions of their peers right now, your relationship with them is still very important. Right now, their attachment to you is a safe harbour that they will probably want to come back to in times of stress, pressure and uncertainty. Yet at other times, they will want to go off and explore the possibilities of independence. But it’s important for their healthy development that they always have the sense of a secure base waiting for them in times of need. For this reason, open and loving communication with you is crucial at this stage of their life.
With this in mind, here are some tips for having a conversation with your teen about low mood or any other changes in their behaviour:
1. Pick the right time
Aim to start by choosing your moment, ideally when your teen seems receptive to talking — or just when you both have the time, space and privacy to do so properly. This could be after a shared activity that you both enjoy, for instance, watching a TV show.
It is also better to talk to your teen when you are feeling calm, as if you approach them when you are angry, frustrated or anxious, then this could cause them to feel threatened or cornered. They may also be more likely to open up if they don’t feel pressured or ambushed.
Keep in mind that much of what they're feeling and experiencing is unlikely to be about you so try not to take things personally or react defensively. A key task of adolescence is developing more autonomy so try not to feel hurt if your teen has been asking for more space (with their words or behaviour). Overall, aim to go into the conversation with an open mind.
2. Start by being curious
It can be a good idea to begin by taking an interest in what's going on in your teen’s mind overall, asking what life is like for them at the moment and if anything is bothering them. But rather than bombarding them with questions, this is more about getting curious about how the world looks through their eyes.
By opening the conversation with curiosity, you are creating a safe space where they won’t feel threatened, confronted or judged. You are also showing that you really want to know how things are for them at the moment, without making any assumptions.
3. Explain why you’re concerned
From here, the next step might be sharing an observation about a behaviour you've noticed, then taking a gentle interest in what might be behind it. For instance, it could be a loss of enthusiasm for hobbies, short-temperedness or lower marks at school. You could then explain that you are worried and ask them if they want to share anything with you.
It’s important not to sound as if you are being critical, are accusing them of anything or are somehow disappointed in them. Instead, the emphasis should be on care and curiosity — a wish to understand things from their perspective.
Also, be mindful of the language that you use. Words like 'lazy', 'unfocused', 'immature' or 'out of control' can all negatively impact teens who have a tendency to heavily internalise people’s opinions of them. After all, many natural and normal developmental processes can create behaviours that might not seem ideal (for instance, excess sleepiness), but are the result of huge brain and hormonal shifts that they genuinely can’t control.
4. Be consistent and gently persistent
Be ready for the fact that your teen may not want to talk at all or may just find it difficult or embarrassing to open up. So emphasise that you are there for them and are willing to listen without judgement or anger, no matter what they want to tell you, whenever they’re ready to do that.
If they continue to be reluctant to talk, or if they deny that anything is wrong, then listen to your gut. If you still sense that there is cause for worry, then you could ask another trusted adult to try talking to them instead. You could also revisit the conversation at another time, after you have given your teen breathing space to consider what you’ve said and to get used to the idea of talking to you about it.
5. Take time to listen closely
If your teen does open up, it is important to focus on simply listening to what they have to say at first. Of course, it’s totally natural that you will want to help out and find solutions, but swooping in to try to solve the problem straight away might cause them to clam up. So start by creating a quiet, calm, listening space first of all and if you want to ask questions, try not to barrage them.
As much as you might want to give advice or opinions, try to hold back as this can be received as a lecture and may cause your teen to shut down and withdraw further. Asking ‘How can I support you?’ or letting them know that you’re there to figure it out together can help them feel heard. Taking a collaborative approach also encourages them to develop their own problem solving skills rather than having someone else swoop in (as much as you might want to make everything better for them as it’s painful to see them suffering).
6. Validate them and their feelings
The aforementioned research by Young Minds and The Children’s Society also found that 50% of young people don’t want to go to their GP as they feel that their problem isn’t bad enough.
For this reason, it’s important to convey to your teen that their wellbeing issue matters, that it deserves attention and they are entitled to all of the care that they need. As mentioned, they may worry that they are somehow being a burden — especially if you are experiencing other family strains right now — so it’s important to reassure them that you want to offer as much support as you can. Simply telling them ‘I’m really glad that you’ve opened up’ or ‘I can hear how difficult things are feeling at the moment’ can help.
It is also important not to minimise their feelings. Phrases like ‘It’s not all that bad’, ‘It’s just a phase’, ‘Everyone goes through this when they’re your age’, ‘Just think positive’ or ‘It will all look better in the morning’ may make your teen feel unheard and could put them off from sharing their feelings with you in the future. Even if their problem seems small, solvable or ‘typically teenaged’ from an adult’s viewpoint, if it is causing them suffering then it needs to be properly acknowledged.
7. Raise the issue of depression gently
Of course, it is possible that your teen is not actually depressed but is dealing with another wellbeing issue altogether. Again, talking and listening is your chance to get a better idea of the situation, without jumping to conclusions.
But if it seems like it could be depression, then bear in mind that your teen might not be aware that they have this problem and could also be struggling to label their feelings. They may say that they don’t really feel anything at all or that they just feel ‘numb’. It’s also possible that they will reject the ‘depression’ label altogether, feeling that it is embarrassing, a weakness or a failing. So it’s important to reassure them that depression is nothing shameful, that it is very common, that help is out there for them and that they are not at all ‘weird’ for feeling this way.
8. Make sure that they are safe
Finally, if you feel that it’s the right time and your teen is open to talking, you may want to ask them if they have had any thoughts about harming themselves or if they are being hurt by anyone else. If they express any thoughts about contemplating suicide, then you should speak to a GP as soon as you can or explore resources for more urgent support.
It can feel daunting to know that your child is struggling but on the positive side, you don’t have to try to solve the problem alone.
For instance, you could consider therapy for your teen or even for your family as a whole, depending on the circumstances. In terms of family therapy, if you have been going through a divorce, bereavement or any kind of shared trauma — or if you have all been struggling with the pressures of the pandemic — then getting support together could be beneficial. That said, your teen might prefer to go on their own therapy journey where they can open up to a caring professional in private. They may also feel daunted by the idea of therapy and while it’s important to reassure them, they shouldn’t be made to feel forced either. What’s important is letting them decide what is best for them.
Whichever option is chosen, therapy can make a big difference to a young person as it can help them to make better sense of their world. A good therapist can help them to sort through their emotions, put their experiences into words and find ways to cope with challenges.
In fact, a range of therapies have been shown to be effective in supporting teenagers who are struggling with low mood. These include CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which can help your teen to identify the triggers that lead to negative thoughts and difficult emotions, and Art Therapy, which can help them to gain a deeper understanding of themselves through creativity and self-expression.
Also, if your teen has experienced shock, grief, trauma, bullying or abuse — or there were ongoing stresses in the family when they were younger — then EMDR and Body-Focused Psychotherapies can help them to process their experiences (or yours if you think these experiences may be impacting on your availability as a parent). And if you decide to take the group counselling route, then Systemic Family Therapy can help you to explore the individual roles in your family, find more effective ways to communicate and resolve ongoing conflicts. Also, if your teen is more comfortable with the idea of chatting to someone over the internet, then online therapy could be a great idea. Nowadays, many therapists also offer a texting or live chat option, which is ideal for younger people who prefer to communicate this way.
As a parent or caregiver, there are many resources out there to help you help your teen navigate stressful or traumatic times.
Trauma-proofing Your Kids: A Parents' Guide for Instilling Joy, Confidence, and Resilience is a book that offers guidance on how to help young people bounce back after being overwhelmed or stressed, while The Anxiety, Depression and Anger Workbook for Teens can help young people to explore their feelings privately, at their own pace. And if you feel that you’d like to learn more about low mood in adolescents, then Teenage Depression: A CBT Guide for Parents is a handy guide. Also, you might find our blog post on the 4 steps you can take to help your children cope with stress to be useful.
Overall, aim to create a sense of safety by checking in with your teen regularly and letting them know that you are always available to listen without judgement. Being a teenager can be a lonely, isolating and even frightening experience, but once they know that they can come to you with their struggles, and there is space for them and their feelings, they could start to feel more secure in the world.
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