By Jennifer Lazuta
You notice your teenage son or daughter retreating to their room more often. She’s been completely silent during dinner. He’s sleeping much more than usual, and seems to be lashing out often — you argue a lot more than you used to.
The teenage years can be tough — and as your son or daughter transitions into adulthood, occasional moodiness and irritability is completely normal. But in some teens, those feelings might be a sign of a much bigger problem — depression. While clinical depression is only diagnosed in adults over the age of 18, nearly 9 percent of adolescents in the U.S. suffer from what medical experts describe as depressive tendencies, according to the most recent survey by the National Institute of Mental Health.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of teenage depression, but most experts agree that certain risk factors, including a family history of depression, an abusive or neglectful home life, a previously diagnosed learning or attention disorder, or a traumatic event (like the death of a parent or an emotional break-up), can all trigger a depressive episode.
In addition, social pressures, family expectations, academic demands and the search for identity or independence, combined with hormonal and physical body changes, can add to the feelings of confusion, sadness and despair.
As your teen deals with the ups and downs of high school, it can often be difficult for parents to spot the early warning signs of depression.
“Sometimes recognizing depression in teens is difficult because the symptoms are masked by what many believe to be normal teenage behavior,” said Daniel Sanvitale, a New York-based psychologist who works with teenagers. “They may start skipping class, being tardy or not completing assignments. They may isolate themselves from peers or they may start acting out.”
Experts say that because teenagers haven’t yet learned how to identify or understand their depressed feelings, these outward displays of rebellion and perpetual bad moods are their way of showing that there might be an underlying problem. Often, it is up to the parents and educators in their lives to recognize their behavior as symptomatic of depression and to seek help on the teen’s behalf.
As with adults, common symptoms of depression in teenagers include:
Experts say, however, that depression in teens is also — and sometimes more often — exhibited in the form of reckless behavior or displays of anger. Some telltale signs include:
The key to distinguishing between depression and typical teenage moodiness, said Sanvitale, is keeping a close eye on how many of the warning symptoms of depression your teen displays, and for how long.
“If a teenager has displayed five or more of any of the symptoms during a two-week period, and has exhibited a recent and noticeable change in behavior, it may be time to seek help,” Sanvitale said.