The Silent Killer
Many teens who use drugs, steal, lie, get pregnant, watch TV all day, and burn smiley faces into their hands have something in common. They're depressed.
Depression is depleting millions of teens of the emotional and physical energy and the vitality necessary to negotiate adolescence. It's an epidemic. Just look at this statistic: Suicide in this country is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, behind accidents and homicide. According to the National Foundation For Depressive Illness, Inc., 5 to 10 percent of adolescents suffer from depression. Thousands of them will attempt suicide, and 15 percent of these will succeed.
The good news is that the majority of depressed teens benefit significantly from treatment. Recognizing depression in your teenager can be difficult, but knowing the signs to look for and the strategies that help overcome depression can make the difference in your child's life.
Signs Of Depression In Teens
Knowing the signs to look for and paying attention to your teen's behavior are the keys to helping your child. Look for major and subtle changes that are not consistent with your teen's general behavior. Some
of the symptoms of depression are:
Feeling down or in a low moods consistently for more than two weeks.
Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, pessimism.
Isolation and withdrawal.
Excessive TV watching.
Suicidal thoughts or a preoccupation with death.
Difficulty falling a asleep, sleeping through the night, or oversleeping.
Disturbances in energy, motivation, initiative.
Change in appetite; overeating, undereating, or throwing up.
Not finding pleasure in activities the teen once enjoyed.
Agitation, anxiety, fearfulness.
Irritability and/or hostility.
Problem at school, such as:
- Falling grades.
- Difficulty concentrating or paying attention.
- Drifting off in class or at home.
- Problems with memory.
- Sudden changes in friends.
- Risk-taking behaviors.
- Drug and alcohol use.
Destructive behavior, such as:
- Burning themselves.
- Cutting or carving on their arms and legs.
- Gang activity.
A common misconception of many parents, teachers, and other authority figures is that these behaviors are indicative of a troublemaker, anti-social personality, or delinquent, i.e., a "bad" kid. This perception is not true. When your teen starts doing a multiplicity of "bad" things, you must suspect that the teen is depressed or ill.
Causes and Contributing Factors
There can be many sources of or contributors to depression. Often a major source of depression is a real or perceived loss or series of losses. Other common factors are a lack of family structure, a perceived
lack of connection to parents, unrealistic expectations and responsibilities, or an absence of challenge and responsibility.
Real and Perceived Losses
Alcoholism, depression, or chronic illness in the family.
Death of a relative, friend, or pet.
Moving away from friends and school.
Feeling rejected by a sports team, club, music group, or peer group.
Sexual, physical or emotional abuse by parents, siblings or others.
Sibling leaving for college.
Becoming less dependent and more independent.
Sexual harassment by teachers or peers at school.
Being gay or lesbian.
Inconsistent availability, or attention from parents.
Lack of structure, supervision, and guidance.
Criticism by parents or teachers.
Being "different" because of one's culture, body size, or disfigurement.
It is important to evaluate:
1) the intensity with which your teen experiences these losses,
2) the impairment of functioning, and
3) the duration of the symptoms.
Teens, in general, tend to experience loss very intensely, and it makes
them feel out of control. Often, because of certain underlying beliefs,
even the most articulate teens cannot communicate what they are feeling.
These beliefs can include:
- "I shouldn't have these feelings. It isn't okay to talk about the feelings.
- And even if I did express the feelings, it wouldn't matter."
The intensity of their feelings is compounded by teens' relatively short life experience, and not having acquired enough coping skills, or a familiarity of the grieving process.
Lack of Challenge
Teens also run the risk of experiencing depression if they are not challenged enough by their parents or teachers. Some parents do not want their teens to experience the discomforts of the normal, and often
painful, struggles of adolescence. The parents' tendency is to protect their child against all uncomfortable and bad feelings. This tendency contributes to a child's inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for his or her life. It also contributes to a dependent rage in the teen. Teens are angry about having to grow up, but are also angry about not being allowed to grow up when their parents rescue them from the consequences of growth. The teen also becomes very angry at themselves for not meeting their goals.
Lack of Structure
When teens do not have the structure that they need, it can contribute to depression. Some parents emotionally neglect their teens. Others are inconsistent with their rules. While teens many push for parents to break or bend the rules, this is not what they really want. Kids actually feel more in control and less depressed when parents stick to the structure.
Perceived Lack of Connection
Depressed teens perceive that their parents do not understand, or know them. Teens may have parents who are very distracted by their own lives or work, which amplifies this perception. Thus, the parents spend very little time with their teens, and try to substitute money, material things, or events. If teens don't get the time they need, they begin to believe that they are not worth the attention, and take in the message, "I am not important."
What Parents Can Do To Help
Parents have every reason to feel very optimistic about being able to help a teen in trouble. Most problems are treatable, but must be dealt with. Experts have identified several things parents can do to help a teen they think is at risk of being depressed.
Talk to Your Teen
Talk to your teen about changes that you are noticing in his behavior, mood, and attitude. Ask what your teen thinks is going on. This can be hard, especially if communication hasn't traditionally been a strong part of your relationship. A good way to start this practice is to plan an activity that your teen likes to do, and use that as an opportunity to talk to them alone. For example, you both might like hiking, shopping, playing basketball, or baking cookies. Don't expect your teen to open up the first or even second time you do an activity together; if may be the ninth or tenth time. Just be consistent. Your goal is create an atmosphere of open communication that your teen can trust to continue.
If your teen has a really hard time talking, perhaps he or she would be better at writing thoughts and feelings on paper. If the teen is open to that, ask for a letter or a story about his or her life. Be prepared to talk to your teen, and ask questions about the writing. A teen's artwork can also be used as a starting point for discussing what is going on.
The important thing is that your teen knows you have opened channels for supportive communication.
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