A New Survey Shows Parents Have Trouble Recognizing Depression in Teens

Depression looks different in everybody—which is why many parents have trouble identifying the signs and symptoms in their children.

A nationwide poll of 819 parents found that over 48% feel somewhat confident in their ability to tell if their middle- and high-school-aged kids are depressed. At the same time, two-thirds said there are certain factors that instead make it difficult for them to recognize if their child is exhibiting depressive symptoms.

Of those polled, 30% of parents said their child is good at hiding their feelings, and 40% said they have a hard time differentiating between normal adolescent mood swings, and something more serious. “In many families, the preteen and teen years bring dramatic changes both in youth behavior and in the dynamic between parents and children,” said Sarah Clark, the co-director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan.

Parents aren’t clueless; they’re aware that their kids are going through hormonal changes, making it tough for even experts to distinguish if something is seriously wrong. “These transitions can make it particularly challenging to get a read on children’s emotional state and whether there is possible depression,” Clark said.

Nevertheless, it’s important for parents to stay in tune to their kids’ behavior, and talk to them about depression. “Our report reinforces that depression is not an abstract concept for today’s teens and preteens, or their parents,” Clark said. In fact, 1 in 4 parents reported that their child knows a peer with depression, and 1 in 10 said their child knows a peer who died by suicide. “This level of familiarity with depression and suicide is consistent with recent statistics showing a dramatic increase in suicide among U.S. youth over the past decade. Rising rates of suicide highlight the importance of recognizing depression in youth.”

So how do you know if your kid is depressed? According to helpguide.org, a mental health and wellness website with articles written by medical experts, one sign of teen depression is a sudden decline in performance at school. A drop in grades or dip in attendance doesn’t always mean a teenager is trying to rebel—they may be distracted or fatigued due to depression.

Other symptoms and warning signs of depression include loss of interest in activities a teen was formerly passionate about. Many teens isolate themselves, even from their closest friends (and family).

Some teens exhibit depression in the form of irritability or anger; others go through crying bouts, or cycle through sharp mood swings.

Changes in eating and sleeping as well as physical aches and pains (including unexplained headaches and stomachaches) are symptoms of the condition too. If your child is exhibiting any of the above or complains of feeling achy (without intense physical activity to blame), it’s worthwhile to schedule a doctor’s appointment.

If you think your teen is depressed, touching base with the counselor at your teen’s school, and their teachers, is a great place to start. In the University of Michigan poll, 70% of parents said they support in-school depression screenings starting in the sixth grade. This makes sense; kids spend the majority of their time in the classroom, so teachers and guidance counselors might be able to spot a change in a kid’s behavior before parents can. Unfortunately, “too few schools have adequate resources to screen students for depression, and to offer counseling to students who need it,” Clark, the poll’s co-director, said.

It’s also important to set up an appointment with your child’s pediatrician as soon as possible. The doctor will likely perform a physical exam and might conduct blood work to rule out any underlying causes. They can also conduct a psychological evaluation to learn more about the state of your teen’s mental health and can provide a reference to a therapist if deemed necessary.

Talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and group therapy are all common and helpful treatments for depression in teenagers.

The poll recommends parents get support too, through workshops provided by local mental health centers, schools, and pediatricians, or through online resources on teen mental health.

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