Parents Guide to Teenage Depression: Signs and Symptoms

By Jessica Getty

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Adolescence is a time period filled with significant biological and social-emotional changes. As they grow older, teens begin to be able to explore their individual interests and personalities in new ways. At the same time, they are navigating new relationships as they begin to understand how they fit into their social worlds.

It is normal that during this time your teenager will experience shifts in moods, but when is typical teen moodiness a sign of something more serious? Just as your teen is trying to adjust to their new experiences, as a parent you are also faced with finding a balance between wanting to be supportive and giving them space.

This blog series is dedicated to helping you navigate potentially difficult conversations with your teenager if you are concerned that he or she may be experiencing depression.

How Common Is It?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 2016 over 3.1 million teens between the ages of 12 and 17 experienced at least one episode of depression, with approximately 70% of these teens reporting that their depression had caused severe impairment in their day-to-day lives. Somewhat surprisingly, 60% of the teenagers who had a depressive episode did not receive any form of therapeutic treatment (either through counseling or medication).

Some concerning behaviors that can develop from persistent or intense depression include those of self-injury and suicide. Not everyone who experiences depression will engage in these thoughts or actions, however, the risk for self-injury and suicidality increases when depression is present.

A study published in The American Journal of Public Health recently found that about 1 in 10 high-school-aged boys and about 1 in 4 high-school-aged girls engage in self-injury. Nationally, suicide represents the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24.

Awareness of significant changes in your teen’s mood and behaviors can help you both in taking steps towards getting connected to therapeutic supports.

What Should I Look For?

Depression can look and feel different to everyone. In part due to the effects of their changing brain chemistry and the variations in their personality and social development, it is also important to consider how depression may seem different in an adolescent than it would in an adult.

Depressive symptoms in teenagers can seem “masked”, meaning that a teen may be feeling many of the emotional lows, but instead of showing decreased energy and isolation, they may be acting out. Some indicators of depression in adolescence could include:

  • Persistent sadness or irritability. Your teen may seem down more often than not, have trouble with seeing positivity, or may seem highly emotionally reactive to certain situations.
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies. Skipping out on opportunities to spend time with friends, or missing several extracurricular activities may indicate that they are really not feeling emotionally up to taking part in things that they previously found enjoyable or meaningful.
  • Changes in weight or appetite. A significant change in eating habits could mean that something is impacting their emotions and effecting how they are relating to food. This could be that they are eating more or less than usual.
  • Changes in sleeping patterns. Similarly to eating patterns, any change (more or less) in sleeping could be a symptom of depression. While adolescents need a significant amount of sleep to support the physical changes they are going through, persistent difficulty with getting out of bed could be problematic. On the other hand, difficulty with falling or staying asleep could also be symptomatic of depression. It all depends on what is typical or out of the ordinary for your teen.
  • Loss of energy. Your teen may seem to have lost some of their liveliness, appear sluggish, or be unable to do things whole-heartedly
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions. This may be apparent in a teen “spacing out” often, or seem to be distracted by his or her own thoughts. Trouble at school may follow from this difficulty
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt. This aspect may be hard to detect. Your teen may say things like “it’s all my fault” or “I can never do anything right”. They may seem overly harsh on themselves in response to negative events or setbacks, such as losing a sports match or getting a bad grade. Making broad statements like “I always…” or “I never…” may point to an overwhelmingly negative view of themselves.
  • Recurrent thoughts or statements of wanting to die. Suicidal thoughts may or may not be communicated. Verbal indicators may be direct, such as “I wish I were dead”, or indirect, such as “I’m tired of life, I can’t go on anymore”. Behavioral signs can include giving away possessions or appearing to cut themselves off from others.

In our next installment in this series, we will explore the ways in which symptoms of depression may be impacting your teens’ life at school, home, and with their friends.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Major Depression. Retrieved from: depression.shtml#part_155031
Monto, M.A., McRee, N., Deryck, F.S. (2018). Nonsuicidal self-injury among a representative sample of US adolescents, 2015. American Journal of Public Health, 108 (8), 1042-1048.

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