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Depression in Teens: How Parents Can Help

Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
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All teens feel sad or moody at times. But when a sad or bad mood lasts for weeks or longer — and when there are other changes in how a teen acts — it could be a sign of depression.

Depression can get better with the right therapy. But problems can last or get worse if they are not treated. Besides therapy, teens who feel depressed need extra support from parents and other adults in their lives.

If you think your teen is depressed, talk with them. Let them know you want to understand what they are going through. Listen if they want to talk.

Schedule a visit with their doctor or a therapist to check for depression. If your teen is depressed, the doctor can explain what they (and you) can do to help. It's best to treat depression early.

How Can I Tell if My Teen Is Depressed?

When teens are depressed, parents may notice a sad or bad mood that lasts for weeks or longer. They may notice other changes, such as:

  • Negative outlook. Teens who feel depressed may be hard on themselves or on others. They might focus on failures and setbacks. It may be hard for them to see the good parts of things, or the good parts of themselves.
  • Low energy, effort, interest, enjoyment. Teens may lose interest in things they used to enjoy. They may not seem to care. They may put less effort into schoolwork or tasks at home. Things seem to take too much effort. Nothing seems fun or enjoyable.
  • Changes in sleep. Teens may sleep more or have trouble getting up when they need to. They may have trouble sleeping.
  • Changes in eating. Some teens with depression show less interest in food and may lose weight. Some eat more than before and may gain weight.
  • Doing poorly at school. When a teen feels depressed, school work can seem harder. They may not complete their work, show effort, or study as much for tests. Their grades may drop.
  • Pulling away from friends and family. Teens may spend more time alone, less time with friends, or seem distant.
  • Risky or harmful behaviors. Depression can lead some teens to misbehave, get in trouble, or argue more. They may show risky behaviors. Some turn to alcohol, drugs, or to self-harm.
  • Thoughts or talk of suicide. Some depressed teens have thoughts of suicide. If you think your teen is thinking of suicide, ask them about it — calmly and with love. Knowing they have someone they can turn to can help protect teens from acting on those thoughts. It also lets you know if your teen needs immediate help.

    If your teen is thinking or talking of suicide, find help and guidance right away. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website, call 1-800-273-8255, or text CONNECT to 741741. You can also take your teen to a hospital emergency room or call 911.

Why Do Some Teens Feel Depressed?

Teens may become depressed for different reasons. There's no single cause. Genes, hormones, and life events can all play a role.

Some teens may be more sensitive to depression because of genes they inherit. Genes influence areas of the brain that affect mood and energy. Teens who feel depressed may have family members who have been depressed, too.

Hormone changes that happen with puberty can affect mood. Some teens are sensitive to hormone shifts that happen with seasonal changes in daylight. They may become depressed at the same time each year, in fall or winter, when daylight hours are shorter. This is called seasonal depression (or seasonal affective disorder).

Life events and personal events may play a role. Many teens have been through loss, family hardship, family conflict, or difficult health challenges. Some have lived with violence or faced trauma. These things don't always lead to depression. But they can — even when teens get good support and have plenty of inner strength.

No matter what plays a role in why teens become depressed, the right treatment can help them get better.

What Is the Treatment for Depression in Teens?

There are several evidence-based treatments that work for depression in teens. They include these types of talk therapy:

  • cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • interpersonal therapy (IPT)
  • attachment-based family therapy (ABFT)

Each of these therapies targets different aspects of depression. Therapists might use a few of these in a teen's treatment. The details of treatment depend on what the teen needs and how severe their symptoms are.

Therapists plan each teen's treatment after first doing a careful exam. They will talk with you and your teen to explain the treatment they recommend. Sometimes, doctors also prescribe medicines to help teens who are depressed.

How Does Therapy Help Teens Who Are Depressed?

Therapy helps teens explore and resolve their depression. In therapy, teens may learn to:

  • feel understood and closer to others
  • talk about their feelings, thoughts, and events that matter to them
  • manage strong emotions and moods
  • reduce harmful or risky behaviors
  • regain energy and motivation
  • improve their emotions, thoughts, and outlook
  • learn and practice coping skills
  • restore healthy family bonds or boundaries, as needed
  • build on their inner strengths
  • find hope and healing, increase their joy and optimism

What Should I Do if I Think My Teen is Depressed?

If you think your teen might be depressed:

  • Talk with them. Show extra love and support. Let them know you care and want to hear what they're going through. When they're depressed, many teens feel alone, distant, or unlovable. Small gestures of caring can help them feel less alone.
  • Take them to see their doctor. Set up a visit with your teen's doctor or a mental health provider to check for depression. Medical providers also can check for other health or mental health issues that might be causing your teen's symptoms. They can explain what they (and you) can do to help your teen.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: September 2021