From the Prevention Action Alliance’s Know! newsletters. View all of their newsletters here.
It’s January; the start of a new year, new habits, and new resolutions. That’s easier said than done for many people, adults and teens alike. All the hustle and bustle can worsen the symptoms of those who already suffer from anxiety and depression into. And for others, the holidays can create the perfect storm for the onset of symptoms.
Holiday parties, family gatherings, the overabundance of social media pics and posts, the loss of a loved one, divorce or other family separation, financial concerns, less sleep, indulging in unhealthy foods and drinks, are all contributing factors to people of all ages feeling overwhelmed, anxious and many times, depressed this time of the year.
For some teens, feeling depressed can cause them to withdraw and avoid social interactions, which oftentimes leads to further sadness and loneliness – a downward spiral that can easily spin out of control. These feelings, which may be more easily managed during other times of the year, may be intensified in the midst of the holiday season.
As parents and other caregivers of young people, it is vital to be aware of the many signs and symptoms of teen depression (according to HelpGuide: Parent’s Guide to Teen Depression):
- Irritability, anger, or hostility
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Tearfulness or frequent crying
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Loss of interest in activities
- Poor school performance
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Restlessness and agitation
- Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
- Lack of enthusiasm and motivation
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Difficulty concentrating
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Thoughts of death or suicide
When considering the red flags for depression, it is important to know that they may look very different in young people versus adults.
Irritability, anger, or hostility: The predominant mood in a depressed teen is oftentimes irritability, as opposed to sadness. It is common for a depressed youth to be grumpy, hostile, easily frustrated, or prone to angry outbursts.
Unexplained aches and pains: When a physical exam turns up zero answers to your child’s chronic headaches, stomachaches and such, the cause may be due to depression.
Extreme sensitivity to criticism: It is common for young people who are depressed to experience feelings of worthlessness, which makes them even more vulnerable to criticism, rejection, and failure than their teenage peers.
Withdrawing from some, but not all people: Depressed teens typically maintain at least some friendships, while depressed adults tend to isolate themselves. Depressed youth, however, are known to socialize less, pull away from their parents, and start hanging out with a new crowd.
You are now aware of the many potential triggers of teen depression this time of the year. You are also aware of the signs and symptoms to look out for when it comes to youth who are depressed. Now it’s time to start up a conversation with your child, as communication is key.
How you communicate is as important as what you communicate. When talking with your child, focus on listening, not lecturing. Be gentle but persistent, knowing that it can be extremely difficult for a teen to express having feelings of sadness and depression. Acknowledge their feelings, even if it seems silly or irrational to you. In the end, trust your gut. If your child won’t open up to you, but you know there is something more going on, consider reaching out to a school counselor, teacher, or mental health professional. The essential piece is to get them talking.
Whether you question if there is a potential issue of depression or not, talking regularly with your son or daughter on topics such as this will help to build and foster a strong relationship between the two of you.
Know! How to Fight Teen Depression
According to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health from the University of Michigan, 40% of parents surveyed said they feel they would have a hard time telling normal ups and downs from possible depression in their tweens and teens. In addition, 30% of parents were concerned with recognizing signs and symptoms of teen depression due to youth being good at hiding their feelings.
In this tip we focus on how parents and other caregivers can help teens who are experiencing depression during the holiday season and beyond (with these tips from HelpGuide: Parent’s Guide to Teen Depression):
Encourage Social Connection
- Make face-to-face time with your child a daily priority. When you do, be sure to put down YOUR phone, resist the urge to multitask, and give your complete attention to your child. This daily in-person interaction can go a long way in reducing your child’s depression.
- Encourage your child to connect with friends. You can even take the lead by seeking out opportunities for them to connect with other teens through family events and activities.
- Get them re-engaged. It is common for depressed teens to lose interest in activities they used to enjoy. Help them find that spark again that brings them joy.
- Promote volunteerism by helping them find a cause that interests them and gives them a sense of purpose. Helping others is a great way to boost one’s mood.
Make Physical Health a Priority
- Get your child moving; exercise is essential to mental health. Ideally, youth should be getting an hour of exercise each day. But it need not involve the gym. It could be a stroll around the block, a bike ride, walking the dog, etc. So long as they’re moving, it’s beneficial.
- Get them off their screens. Teens tend to gravitate toward the virtual world to escape their problems, but social media has a way of making things go from bad to worse. Plus, when screen time goes up, physical activity and time spent with friends in person goes down, which can worsen symptoms.
- Encourage plenty of sleep. Sleep is as vital as the air they breathe, and most teens aren’t getting enough of it. Teens need between eight to ten hours of sleep each night in order to function their best.
- Provide them with nutritious, balanced meals to improve their mood and help them feel energized. The typical teen-preferred junk food is alright in moderation, but it is critical for brain health and mood support to incorporate healthy fats, quality proteins, and fruits and vegetables in their daily diets.
Know When to Seek Professional Help
Family support and healthy lifestyle changes can make a world of difference for a teen experiencing depression. However, sometimes these measures are simply not enough. If you suspect or know that your child needs something more, do not hesitate in seeking professional assistance. Start with your family physician or pediatrician for direction and guidance.
For further depression support and referrals, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline at 1-800-950-6264 or go online at https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/NAMI-HelpLine.
If you suspect that a teenager is suicidal, take immediate action! For 24-hour suicide prevention and support in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. To find a suicide helpline outside the U.S., visit IASP or Suicide.org.
- Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. HelpGuide: Parent’s Guide to Teen Depression. October 2019.
- Jennifer Salerno, NP, Teen Depression and the Holidays. The Struggle is Real. October 2017.
- National Sleep Foundation: Children, Teens & Sleep.