Is My Teen Depressed?

July 31, 2020

If your teenager seems moody and has been withdrawing from their daily life – including no longer doing things they enjoy – you might find yourself wondering “Is my teen depressed?”. Here at Hillcrest, we’d like to provide you with an easy guide to recognizing the symptoms that might plague your teen.

Teen depression is a severe mental health problem that is more prolific among children and teens than most people realize. Depression causes persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest in typical everyday activities. When your teenager is depressed, it can affect how they think, feel, and behave. It can also cause emotional, physical, and functional problems. Although depression knows no age boundaries, the symptoms and presentation may be different between teens and adults.

The depression causing stressors and triggers that teens and adults face are different. For teens, issues such as academic expectations, peer pressure, puberty, and hormones can bring about a lot of emotional changes. For some teens, however, the lows become more than just temporary feelings of sadness; they are symptoms of depression. A depressed teen isn’t indicative of emotional weakness, nor can depression be overcome through sheer willpower. Chronic depression can have serious consequences and may require long-term treatment. For most teens, depression symptoms can be mitigated with treatment, including medication and psychological counseling, through a treatment program such as that here at Hillcrest.

What Does Teen Depression Look Like?

As noted above, teens have mood swings and moments where they just want to be left alone. These are normal and completely understandable, considering the landscape of their current environment. The teen years are full of changes to their brains, bodies, and lives. All of these changes can sometimes become overwhelming and difficult to navigate. For a parent, it could become hard to determine whether the emotions your child is experiencing her traditional “teen angst” or a signal that your teen is depressed.

The signs and symptoms of teen depression often include a change from the teenager’s typical attitude and behavior. These changes can cause significant difficulties both at home and at school, as well as during social activities and other areas of their day-to-day life. Depression is relatively common among teens occurring in about one out of every eleven kids between the ages of 12 and 17. In fact, statistics show that depression is more common among teenagers than it is in adults.

Emotional Changes

Commonly seen emotional changes you may see or need to be on the lookout for if you suspect your teen is depressed include:

  • Feelings of sadness
  • Crying spells that occur for no apparent reason
  • The feeling of hopelessness or emptiness
  • Expressions of anger or hostility even over small things
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
  • Low or reduced self-esteem

Behavioral Changes

Behavioral changes may also occur in addition to the emotional changes you may see. Some of the most common behavioral changes may include:

  • Lethargy or reduced energy
  • Sleep disturbances (sleeping too much or difficulties sleeping)
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Use of alcohol or drugs
  • Restlessness or agitation
  • Slowed, difficult thinking
  • Unexplained, frequent body aches and pains
  • Frequent visits to the school nurse

Teen Angst or Teen Depression?

It can be challenging for parents and caregivers to tell the difference between typical teen emotional ups and downs and signs that prove your teen is depressed. The line between typical teen angst and depression is crossed when moodiness and other behavioral and emotional changes continue for more than two weeks and begin to affect your teen’s ability to function in their day to day lives. If your teen who was previously on the honor roll and participating in sports now doesn’t want to go to school, starts failing academically, drops out of sports, and isolates themselves in their room all day, they may depressed.

Causes of Teen Depression

The exact cause of depression remains unknown; however, a variety of issues may be involved. Some of these may include some of or a combination of the following.

Brain Chemistry

When depression occurs, the neurotransmitters in the brain are disrupted. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that occur naturally within the brain. Their job is to carry signals to other parts of the brain and body based on messages the brain supplies. When these chemicals are impaired or abnormal, the nerve systems’ functions and associated nerve receptors change. These changes can lead to your teen feeling depressed.


Hormonal changes are a normal part of the developmental and maturing process for teens. For most, these hormonal changes bring about the expected teen angst as referenced above. In other cases, the change in the body’s hormonal balance may be a cause or trigger for depressive symptoms.

Inherited Traits

Diagnoses of depression are more common among children and teens whose blood relatives (typically parents or grandparents) have also been diagnosed. If you have a diagnosis and have been

Early Childhood Trauma

Traumatic events experienced during childhood can make a teen more susceptible to becoming depressed. Events such as physical or emotional abuse, loss of a parent, or being the victim of or witness to a violent crime can cause changes to the brain, which increases the potential for depressive symptoms.

Risk Factors for Your Depressed Teen

Many people think of risk factors and causation as the same thing, but they are different. A cause is something that must be underlying or existing to result in something else (cause and effect). A risk, however, is something that, by its presence, increases the likelihood that something will occur. While the cause of depression is unknown, there are perceived causes (listed above), which could lead to a higher potential for diagnoses. There are also risk factors that increase the likelihood of triggers or events, which could lead to depressive symptoms in teens. Many factors increase the risk of developing or triggering teen depression. Some of these risk factors mimic or overlap causative factors but are worth noting.

  • Having difficulties that adversely impact self-esteem: These could include things such as obesity, academic challenges, long-term bullying, and peer relationship issues.
  • Victimization: Teens who were the victim to or the witness of violence such as sexual or physical abuse, a violent crime, or terrorist activity.
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders such as an anxiety disorder, anorexia, bulimia, a personality disorder, or bipolar disorder.
  • Diagnosis of a learning disability or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Presence of ongoing pain or chronic physical illness such as diabetes or asthma.
  • Certain personality traits: The presence of personality traits such as chronic low self-esteem, dependency, pessimism, and a critical view of oneself can increase the risk for depression.
  • Substance abuse including alcohol, nicotine or other drugs
  • Being part of the LGBTQ community

In addition to risk factors present outside the family or home environment, family history, and issues within the family may also increase your teen’s risk of depression. Some of these may include:

  • Having a blood relative (most commonly a parent or grandparent0 with depression, bipolar disorder, or a substance abuse disorder.
  • Having a family who died as a result of suicide.
  • The presence of family conflict or a dysfunctional family environment.
  • Experiencing recent stressful life events (examples may include divorce, military deployment, moving, or the death of a loved one).

Treatment for Teen Depression

Unfortunately, there is no definitive way to prevent depression. However, you could utilize strategies as a parent to help your team manage emotions and triggering events, hopefully warding off long-term depressive symptoms and helping them navigate being depressed.

First, as a family, you can work to take steps to control stress, increase their resilience, and boost their self-esteem. This may help them handle triggering issues when they arise in a healthy manner instead of an unhealthy one. It is also beneficial to teach them to reach out to others for friendship and social support in times of crisis.

It is important as a parent to talk with your teen, discuss with them what they’re feeling and what you have noticed and see what you can learn from the conversation. You may learn that this is just a momentary blip in the radar, and the symptoms may alleviate themselves shortly. On the other hand, you may discover that the triggering events that have caused their depressive symptoms are long-running. Therefore treatment in an evidence-based therapy program such as those offered here at Hillcrest could be most beneficial to their recovery. Whatever you do, don’t attempt to wait the problem out. Severe depression will not take care of itself, and it is vital to note that depression is a significant cause of suicide. Several studies show that a combination of therapy and, in some cases, antidepressant medication can be very successful in treating teen depression.

In Therapy - Depressed - Hillcrest

For many teens, depression is situational or temporary. They just need help and a little time to work through their emotions. An experience with a depressive episode does not necessarily mean that they are relegated to medications and therapy for the rest of their lives. This is a common fear and misconception among teens who are afraid to talk with somebody about their experiences or emotions because they don’t want to be seen as “different” or “crazy.” To ensure the best chances of recovery, treatment must be sought at the earliest signs of a problem. This can help prevent depression from worsening with potentially detrimental outcomes. It is also important to maintain ongoing treatment, if recommended, to help prevent a relapse of depressive symptoms.

If you are a teen and think you may be depressed, have a friend who is, or are a parent of a teen experiencing depressive symptoms, do not wait to get help. Recovery from depression is possible with proper individualized treatment plans that take into account both the mental health and physical health of your teen. At Hillcrest, we design our teen treatment plans specific to the individual, not to the diagnosis, ensuring a holistic, evidence-based program that leads to recovery. If you are a teen experiencing depression Or the parent of a teen who is concerned, don’t hesitate to call Hillcrest today.