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Warning signs of teen depression parents should understand

Teens are infamously moody, but how can you tell what behavior is normal and what should cause concern?

Dr. Gregory L. Jantz, founder of The Center for Counseling and Health Resources near Seattle, Wash., offers some signs parents can look for. These signs occur early and can help parents seek help for their child at the beginning of a potential problem.

The biggest thing Jantz says parents need to remember is that teens feel just as stressed as adults do, yet they have fewer skills to cope with the stressful feelings. The recent economic downturn has added a new kind of stress onto the normal stresses of adolescence and teens are worried about their families’ financial stability, as well as their own ability to earn money.

“Teens who are overwhelmed by stress often are unable or unwilling to ask for help,” said Jantz, author of the book When Your Teenager Becomes…The Stranger in Your House. “But the longer they continue to flail and struggle emotionally, the greater the chance they’ll develop more serious problems like clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, dependence on alcohol or drugs and, sadly, suicidal tendencies. It’s up to parents and other adults to recognize when a teen is struggling and intervene.”

In the end you know your own child best, but Jantz offers these general tips:

  • Arguing is normal; constant anger is not. Sometimes teens argue just to argue. It allows them to let off steam, express their displeasure about life in general and test boundaries. The occasional dramatic meltdown is to be expected. But it’s not normal for a teen to be angry and hostile all the time, constantly fighting and yelling.
  • Withdrawal from parents is normal; pulling away from family and friends is not. Expect your teen to start pulling away from you – unless she wants something – and occasionally from their friends, as well. Sometimes, they just need to pull back for a few days, even from friends. But when they appear to isolate themselves for weeks, spending weekend after weekend alone in their room, they may be struggling with depression. Socializing with friends is one of the first things to go as depression sucks the joy out of life.
  • Anxiety is normal; feeling constantly overwhelmed is not. Teens have a lot to be anxious about – the prospect of independence is both exhilarating and terrifying, so some worrying is to be expected. But a teen who seems to be, or says he is, struggling daily with stress needs help. Two types of kids are especially vulnerable to developing generalized anxiety disorder, a heightened, constant state of anxiety: The worker bee perfectionist who crams his schedule with activities, responsibilities and tasks, and the kids who worry so much over anything, they can’t get anything done.
  • Being upset for days after a bad experience is normal; more than two weeks is not. Teenagers tend to react dramatically when things go wrong – their boss chews them out, they fail a test, they get in an argument with their sweetheart. Adults know from experience that these things aren’t the end of the world and all will be well again, but teens lack that perspective. It’s normal for them to be in a bad mood about it for a few days, but to dwell on the problem for more than two weeks indicates they’re struggling.

Visit for an online survey to see if you or your teen is showing signs of depression (click “Depression” and then “Depression Survey” in the drop-down menu).

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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