In today's culture, Gen Z teens test-drive a variety of emotions every day, and sometimes they have no idea how to explain or express them. We’ve all heard something like, “I’m so depressed! They canceled my favorite show!” But are they really depressed? Or just moody? Learning the difference between normal teen emotions and abnormal ones is paramount as teen depression rates continue to rise.
What’s the difference between sadness and depression?
“Normal,” everyday feelings can be overwhelming to say the least and must be properly explored. Teens may withdraw, cry, rage, refuse to eat, have trouble sleeping, etc. because of a difficult circumstance or painful experience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are mentally ill. A teen’s mood swings can last a few minutes, hours, or days. As parents, we can and should teach our kids coping strategies and ways to obtain healthy support to prepare them for what Jesus spoke of as “the world’s trouble.”
But clinical depression goes far beyond “the blues.” When a person presents a severe, longstanding distortion in mood that doesn’t match current circumstances, mental health care professionals refer to it as a “depressive disorder.” This condition, part of a category of illnesses called mood disorders or affective disorders, impacts daily lifestyle, relationships, personality, and sometimes cognitive functioning. It requires professional medical care to resolve and, left untreated, can result in devastation for sufferers—and their loved ones.
What are the signs of teen depression?
These are some signs of clinical depression:
- Intense emotions and mood swings without any trigger at all.
- Identity is affected.
- Lack of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable.
- Drastic behavior changes last for an extended period of time.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Complaints of pains, including headaches, stomachaches, lower back pain, or fatigue.
- Rapid weight loss or gain.
- Rapid drop in grades and/or school attendance.
- Feeling sad and/or hopeless.
- Being withdrawn.
- Use of alcohol or other substances.
I didn't know my child was depressed, am I a bad parent?
Definitely not. Stanford Children’s Health calls mood disorders in children and adolescents one of the most under-diagnosed mental health problems. It's important to know that your child's depression is not your fault. "But she's my child, I should know these things." To the worried parent: We see you, we hear you, and we understand your pain in this. But we as parents need to free ourselves from the burden that we've gone wrong somewhere along the way. Mental illness is a tough thing, and it's not your fault, nor is it the fault of your teen.
You may have been unaware of your child's depression because they hid it from you very intentionally. Young people with mental disorders often deal with sigma, isolation, and discrimination, so it's really hard for them to actually admit to being depressed. Because of this, they may be experiencing shame over something that they can't control, but feel they should have control over.
How you can help your child
We know that teen depression isn't easy, but there are some helpful steps we parents can take to get to the heart of the issue with our kids.
- Get professional help. Visit a specialist in adolescent behavioral illness. Mood disorders are actually very common and very treatable. If the specialist uncovers a related biological, lifestyle, or experiential matter, refocus your spiritual efforts appropriately and cheer them on as they continue in treatment.
- Care for physical needs. Even if a mental illness has damaged your kid’s physical health (poor eating habits, lack of sleep, poor hygiene, no motivation to exercise, etc.), encourage and even facilitate activity in their life. Agree with them that it’s difficult, but remind them how even a little activity can deflect symptoms and ward off an episode.
- Help them pray—and pray for them. No one knows the heart of your child better than God does, so invite Him into this. Pray with and for your child, and ask others who care for your child to do the same.
- Assure them of God’s truth. Gently remind your child of God’s love, grace, power, and promises, correcting any distorted beliefs and thwarting their mind’s destructive messaging.
- Be vulnerable. If you’ve ever struggled with depression, suicidal thoughts, or anything that made you doubt God’s goodness, don’t hide that from your teen. Knowing you’re not alone and that someone else you care about has struggled or is struggling through this with you can make all the difference.