Editors Note: This post is written by Krista Bjork as part of our series on finding hope in the midst of depression. In this series, our counselors are helping people understand the reality of depression and how God sustains and helps those who are depressed. View the Series Page here.
In this post, Krista unpacks how to identify depression affecting a teenager and how to help them respond to the trial of depression by turning to God and others who care about them.
Mood swings, irritability, the desire to be alone . . . these are just a few of many characteristics by which parents define the teenage years. With all the statistics out there telling us that teen depression and suicide are on the rise, many parents wonder how they will know the difference between what is “normal” and what is a sign that their teen has a deeper problem.
Some symptoms of teen depression include:
- Withdrawal: While most teens want more time to themselves and away from family, a major withdrawal from family, and especially from friends or activities they typically would enjoy, is a red flag. It’s okay to calmly and kindly insist on certain protected family times or vocalize concern over too much withdrawal.
- Low mood that lasts for days or weeks: May include excessive crying, fatigue, and aches and pains.
- Self-deprecation: While it’s normal for teens to engage in sarcastic, self-deprecating humor as a way to “make light” of their insecurities, frequent remarks that put themselves down, or remarks made without a feeling of humor, are a warning sign.
- Overuse of technology: Technology is a staple for today’s teens, but it can often be used as an unhealthy escape or coping mechanism. Look for this one if it’s in conjunction with other warning signs, or if you notice a change in the types of content your teen is seeking to view.
- Irritability, hostility, and aggression: While some teens will exhibit signs of sadness, for others, especially boys, depression manifests in angry behaviors.
- Self-harm or talk of suicide: Of course physical self-harm such as cutting is a red flag, but other self-destructive behaviors such as excessive over- or under-eating, excessive exercise, or sleeping too much or too little are more subtle forms of self-destructive behavior that still deserve our attention.
- Change in school performance: A drop in grades, motivation, or participation in extracurricular activities that is outside the norm for this child.
What can a parent do?
Frustratingly, while teens need their parents’ encouragement, support, and affirmation in the long-term, in the short-term they are likely to minimize what their parents say. “You’re my mom, you’re supposed to say that,” “Stop being such a dad…” are frequent things I hear from teens when their parents offer positive words. Both your encouragement as well as your admonishment is better heard, unfortunately, when they also hear it from someone else. (I jokingly refer to Deuteronomy 19:15- “A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”) Try enlisting a youth pastor, teacher, coach, counselor, or even another adult family member that your child respects as an advocate.
Should I “force” my teen into counseling?
I have had only a few teen clients who requested counseling of their own accord, and these were high anxiety, type-A kids who realized their problems were interfering with their performance, or teens whose friends were already in counseling and suggested it to them. Most depressed teens don’t want counseling, don’t feel they need it, or that it will help them, despite efforts of schools and even media platforms to reduce the stigma around mental health. In the context of Biblical counseling, we also have to be sensitive to a teen’s openness to spiritual solutions.
I think the best thing a parent can do if they feel their teen needs counseling is to go themselves. We can admit we are human and may make mistakes in how we talk to and approach our kids, or how we have parented in the past, and that we too could use some help. Often I have parents come first before they bring their teen in, or come together for the initial appointment to help their teen be more comfortable. We are sinners just like our teens are, need encouragement just like they do, and the same grace from God is available to us as to our teens.
Don’t be discouraged if your teen goes through a season of depression or anxiety. As in the story of the prodigal son, God can use such “rock bottom” seasons for His glory, to bring our kids to the end of their independence and to create in them a longing for the Father and for home.