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What To Do if You Suspect Your Teen Is Struggling With Depression

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Many parents are getting a chance to experience their children in a new way thanks to COVID-19 and the related “shelter in place” orders. Some families are strengthening their bonds and some are finding novel ways to avoid contact with each other while remaining in the same home. If you find yourself spending more time with your teenager and wondering if your child’s superpower is avoiding work of any kind, then you’re not alone. Teens have a special way of trying to getting out of their responsibilities. This is to be expected as they transition from engaging in behaviors that will make the parent happy to wanting to please themselves. Meanwhile, a deeper look at defiance or laziness might reveal that some teens are experiencing symptoms of depression.

Depression: How Might it Look in a Teen?

You might notice your child spending more time alone, spending more time in bed, snacking more or not eating as much. Your teen might decide to do nothing despite having a number of daily chores and academic tasks to complete. You might feel as though your child is lazy and oppositional, but they tell you they don’t have the energy nor the motivation to do anything.

Before the pandemic, maybe they weren’t the most social person, but they still kept in contact with a select few people. The longer they stay at home though, the less they reach out and maintain social connections. When their friends call or text, they might answer the phone, but more often than not they ignore them. When they finally decide to answer (because they have become so irritated at the fact that someone called twice in two days), your child tells them that they were asleep when they called before.

One day, your child may wake up and have the thought that they want to shower and do something productive with the day. Then, they think more and decide that there is no point in showering, because they don’t plan to leave the house.  You ask your child when they plan to bathe and they say, “What’s the point in being off of school if I have to wake up and act like I’m going?” They then sit down on your sofa, turn on Netflix and scroll through social media.

Your child posts a funny meme about the show that they’re watching and you notice some banter between them and their friends when you check their social media. Their friends joke that they are glad to know that they’re alive being that they have been incognito for the last few days. Meanwhile, your child is the only one who understands the irony of the jokes because at times, they wished that they weren’t alive. After binge watching their show and habitually posting on social media for the day, they feel really fatigued. You wonder how a teenager who has done nothing but sit around, watch TV and post on social media could have the audacity to feel tired as if they had gotten up and gone to work all day. You say something sarcastic to let them know that they are lazy. Maybe you argue for a while. Then, your child goes back to bed and sleeps another 10 hours.

Isolation or Sheltering in Place

For many people, sheltering in place or staying at home is the same as isolation. Isolation is not only a symptom of depression but can be a cause of depression as well. Add that to the sadness that might be triggered by a loss of daily contact with friends, unstructured days, uncertainty about the future, death of loved ones or known acquaintances, fear, and difficulty coping with major life stressors. It becomes much easier to imagine that your child who seems to be taking quarantine a little too seriously may actually be isolating due to depression. Similarly, your teen may be using social distancing to hide or deny their experience of depression.

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Is it Depression?

Depression is a funny thing. If it doesn’t disrupt a person’s daily functioning then it’s generally not considered to be a clinical issue. But how can you tell if it’s disruptive to your child’s functioning when they have so few daily responsibilities? If your child is generally very compliant, they might even complete his schoolwork before isolating simply to avoid having to interact with you or hear you complain about it. You may have a hard time determining whether you should feel frustrated about their laziness and oppositional attitude or concerned that something deeper is going on.  If you want to figure out whether you are dealing with typical teenage angst or significant mood disruption then look into these two questions:

1) Are most of your child’s thoughts shrouded in negativity?

2) If you gave your child a list of fun and simple tasks for tomorrow, would your child complete them?

If their thoughts are mostly negative and it’s extremely difficult for them to enjoy what used to be life’s simple pleasures, much less find energy or motivation to complete tasks they are given, then they might be struggling with depression.

How to Help

Doing is a coping skill. Help your child plan their day. Have them make a list of things to do and then reinforce them with praise for each task they complete throughout the day. It’s important that your child identifies the tasks on the list, though you may assist by throwing out some ideas.

The list doesn’t have to be extremely long or involved. In fact, your child can start by giving themselves one task, such as taking a bath or shower. If they are able to take a bath or shower on day one, then on day two they might add “brushing teeth.” If they are successful on day two, then they can add preparing breakfast to the list. A successful day three would involve waking up, taking a shower, brushing his teeth and preparing breakfast. As his days progress, so should the list. Soon, they might be able to resume social connections, engage in enjoyable activities and partake in acts of selflessness. Several clinical studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between engagement in acts of kindness for others and increased feelings of happiness.

Ultimately, the hallmarks of depression are sad mood and loss of pleasure/interest in things that were once enjoyable. Some teens are so uncomfortable with the idea of sadness that they experience irritability or anger instead. If your child seems excessively lazy, uninterested, grumpy, and complains that they wish they felt differently, then you may need to take action in order to bring your child out of a pit of sadness that could get progressively worse if ignored. Try helping them take small steps forward such as those mentioned above.

If you think your teen may be experiencing depression, then you may also contact a mental health professional who can help you and your child work through this difficult and challenging time.

Originally published: October 14, 2020
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