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Signs of Depression in Teens

People often associate depression with adults, overlooking the signs of depression in teens. Up to 15% of teens experience depression.

Signs of Depression in Teens

Article Contents

What is Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder that affects how people think, feel, and behave. Depression and its associated illnesses cause feelings of sadness or hopelessness that can last for varying lengths, ranging from a few days to a few years. Some people may only experience a case of depression once in their lives.

On the other hand, others may have several severe episodes. This pervasive and more intense form of depression is known as a major depressive disorder. It is also sometimes referred to as clinical depression or major depression.

Clinical Depression: An Overview

The Basics: Depression

Depression causes powerful feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that are invasive and persistent enough to affect every aspect of your teen’s life, including relationships, school, and work. Unfortunately, these symptoms and emotions cannot be willed to stop, and all the time in the world will not make them “go away” on their own.

While depression will not simply go away without depression treatment, how long teen depression and its associated symptoms affect your teen depends on several factors, including lifestyle changes and whether your teen receives prompt treatment.

Clinical Depression

Many teens (and adults) with clinical depression often wonder if their symptoms will go away on their own over time. People commonly question if there is a way to “cure” depression and alleviate its associated symptoms without completing a treatment program or seeking therapy. While time does indeed help some of the symptoms related to certain life events that may cause depression, it does not alleviate or cure depression.

The symptoms one experiences with major depressive disorder significantly interfere with their ability to function or complete daily activities such as school, work, and social events. They also impact mood, behavior, and physical functions such as sleep and appetite. Major depressive disorder affects approximately fifteen million American adults and occurs in roughly one out of eight teens.

Teenagers and Depression

Moodiness and (sometimes) dramatic swings in behavior are common in teens. Although moody behavior is expected in teens, parents need to watch out for potential indications of a deeper emotional problem such as depression. The challenge lies in identifying what depression looks like in teens. The signs of depression in teens do look different.

A couple of examples of these differences include changes in sleeping patterns and isolation. While adults who struggle with depression may withdraw from everyone, teens with depression may withdraw from the adults in their lives but continue relationships with peers. Also, adults with depression struggle with sleeping problems, including insomnia, whereas teens will still find time for sleep but at irregular hours.

Signs of Depression in Teens

Causes of Depression

While scientists at the National Institutes of Mental Health and research bodies across the country are studying, the causes of depression remain unclear. Scientists suggest that a combination of genetics (inherited traits), biology (brain chemistry), environment, and psychological factors (life events) all play a role in developing depression.


It is commonly thought that depression stems from an imbalance or abnormality of the neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that naturally occur within the brain. They are responsible for carrying signals to other parts of the brain and the body. When these vital chemicals are impaired or abnormal, the function of the nerve receptors and the nerve systems changes. This can lead to depression.

Hormone Changes

Hormones are already a significant challenge for teens, even under normal circumstances. The teen years are when the body goes through some of its most significant changes, resulting in swings of mood and emotion. Changes naturally taking place in the body can impact the balance of hormones which may trigger depression.


Depression is more common among people with a blood relative who shares the diagnosis.

Environment and Life Events

Traumatic events experienced during childhood (such as physical or emotional abuse or loss of a parent) may cause changes in the brain, making a person more susceptible to depression.

Each year, more and more children and teens are diagnosed with depression. Today, approximately 4.5% percent of children between ages three and seventeen have diagnosed depression. Depression can affect anyone at any time. Fortunately, the treatment options continue to increase, as well.
Signs of Depression in Teens

Signs of Depression in Teenagers

Several symptoms are commonly linked to depression. To be diagnosed with depression, a person does not need to experience the entire list; however, some are seen in most depression cases.

Indications of Teenage Depression

Common examples of the signs of depression in teens include:
  • Lack of energy and lethargy
  • Lingering sadness
  • Reduced self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Avoiding others, including friends and classmates
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Inability to function at school
  • Appetite changes
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Suicidal ideations or attempts
  • Self-harm
While this list is by no means exhaustive, the above are common symptoms to look for if your teen struggles with potential depression symptoms.

Behavioral Shifts Associated With Depression

Is It Depression or Normal Teenage Behavior?

It can be difficult for parents to distinguish between teen depression and “normal” teen behavior. A study conducted through Harvard Medical School suggests looking at a few key factors.

The first factor is the severity of your teen symptoms. Adolescent depression is characterized by mood changes, behavioral changes, negative thoughts and feelings, and (sometimes) disturbances in perception such as hallucinations. When these symptoms are intense and persistent, it might indicate depression rather than “growing pains.”

What’s Normal and What’s Not?

Another factor is the duration of symptoms. Moments of low mood and passing mood swings are normal teen behavior. In general, these moods will fade within a short time. If you notice your teen’s mood or behavioral change persists for two weeks or longer, it may signal depression. Lastly, at least according to the Harvard Health report, are domains.

If your teen’s mood changes occur in just one location, such as at home or only at school, it may indicate a problem within that space or domain. However, if their depression symptoms occur in multiple spaces, it may indicate the presence of a mood disorder such as depression.

Complications With Depression

Typical teen depression symptoms such as isolation, moodiness, and sometimes unpredictable behavior can lead to many challenges for teens. Often, these difficulties extend beyond the internal complexities caused by depression. Teens who struggle with depression may also experience physical, psychological, and social challenges that stem from chronic, untreated depression.

Relationship Difficulties

For example, teens with depression may struggle to form and maintain relationships. This may include social relationships with peers, romantic relationships, and relationships with family members. Because depression often leads to social and personal struggles, depressed teens find it difficult to remain socially engaged, increasing isolation.

Another factor behind increased isolation is the desire to avoid others or withdraw from others when experiencing depression symptoms. Increased isolation may also lead to missed work or school (or other problems related to work or school).

Problems With Tobacco, Alcohol, and Other Drugs

Youth depression can also lead to problems with co-occurring substance use. It is not uncommon for people to turn to substances such as tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs to reduce the intensity and severity of depression symptoms. While possibly beneficial in the short term, using substances to self-medicate rather than seek treatment will inevitably lead to more complex mental health challenges, including addiction and worsening symptoms.

Untreated teen depression may also lead to medical problems, including heart disease and other conditions. Teens who struggle with depression talk of harming others or themselves. In the most severe cases, teens with depression may engage in self-harming behavior, talk of suicide, or plan to carry out a suicide attempt.

How Do You Know When it is a Problem?

There are many potential causes of teen depression. Because mood swings and behavioral shifts are common in teens, parents (understandably) struggle to know when or if their teen’s mood is something to be concerned about. For this reason, it is important to note any dramatic or persistent changes in your teen’s “normal” mood or behavior. If you are concerned their symptoms may be a sign of depression, it is essential to contact their primary care provider or a professional at a teen-focused treatment program.
Signs of Depression in Teens

How to Help Your Teenager with Depressive Tendencies

There are several things parents can do to help their teen safely and effectively manage depression symptoms. When you notice signs of depression in your teen, it is crucial to encourage ongoing social interaction. Encouraging your teen to spend time with others outside of their home environment may help reduce the pain and loneliness that accompany depression.

Promote Wellness

It is also important to encourage and promote physical health. Engaging in physical activity, eating a balanced diet, and getting ample sleep are vital to protecting and improving your teen’s physical and mental health. When teens struggle with depression, necessary self-care activities, including a healthy diet and sleep, become a lesser priority. Encouraging physical health may help reduce the physical and psychological impacts of depression by keeping your teen’s mind and body healthy.

Seek Professional Help

It is also essential to know when to reach out for professional help. This may be difficult as signs of depression in teens do not (always) appear in all areas of their lives. Also, symptoms of teen depression may come and go, further complicating parents’ ability to understand their teen symptoms. Remember, teen depression can lead to more significant and detrimental medical and mental health challenges when left untreated.

If you are concerned that your teen’s symptoms may be depression, it is crucial to seek help. Your teen’s primary care provider can assess for other conditions that may contribute to their symptoms. They can also provide a depression diagnosis and assist with the best next steps for your teen. If your teen is diagnosed with depression, it is crucial to support them as they progress through depression treatment and beyond.

Treatment for Teen Depression

The first step in depression treatment for your child or teen is to visit your primary care provider. During this visit, the doctor will ask several questions about their symptoms and how they affect them both mentally and physically. Their provider may suggest your teen work with a mental health specialist or seek residential treatment at a specialized facility like Iris Healing®. It is essential to remember that clinical depression (also called a major depressive disorder or major depression) will not go away.

If your teen’s symptoms meet the diagnostic criteria for depression, it is crucial to seek comprehensive treatment as the first step towards a future free of depression. At a professional depression treatment program, your teen’s treatment team will use a combination of treatment models to help your teen overcome their symptoms.


Chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters are associated with depression. The three most referenced are serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Most antidepressant medications reduce or relieve symptoms of depression by altering how neurotransmitters are produced and how they function. Because neurotransmitters, also referred to as chemical messengers, aid in helping the brain cells communicate, medications can slow or enhance these communication functions. Each type or class of antidepressant affects neurotransmitters in different ways.


Talk therapies are the most common form of psychotherapy used to treat depression for people of all ages. There are several different kinds of talk therapy. Talk therapy sessions can be held in both an outpatient and inpatient setting. Suppose your teen has been struggling with chronic, long-term depressive symptoms. In that case, an inpatient setting with specialized and individualized care here at Iris Healing® may be a better option than traditional outpatient settings.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT focuses on how one’s thoughts and behaviors contribute to their depression. Your teen’s therapist will help them learn new ways to react to events and triggers. They will also learn to challenge preconceptions that lead to depressive symptoms.

Interpersonal Therapy

this form of therapy focuses on how your child or teen’s relationships play a role in their depression. They will learn how to spot unhealthy behaviors and change them before they lead to depressive triggers.

Psychodynamic Therapy

This is a more traditional form of therapy. Your child and their therapist will explore behavior patterns and motivations they may not be aware of that could be leading to their depression. They may also investigate traumatic events that could have occurred when your child was younger, which could also be underlying triggers.

Family Counseling

Family counseling is also a standard treatment model used when treating depression in teens. Family therapy is designed to help your teen’s family learn more about depression and the early warning signs and symptoms. Understanding these events may help family members to guide their child or teen through depressive events.

In addition to professional therapy models, lifestyle changes, including regular exercise, a healthy diet, reduced screen time, and a healthy sleep schedule, may also help with symptom management.

Outpatient and Residential Treatment

Signs of Depression in Teens

Your teen may have been experiencing symptoms of depression for some time before anyone realizes the severity of their illness. The symptoms of depression can become severe and debilitating very quickly. A residential treatment program offered here at Iris Healing® may be the best treatment option to help your teen. Residential programs are suggested if your teen is unable to keep themselves safe, unable to care for themselves or if the episode they are experiencing is particularly severe.

Our medical and mental health providers will assess your teen during a stay at Iris Healing®. If they are already on medication for their depressive episodes, those medications will be reviewed and possibly changed. Your teen will also participate in therapy sessions alone and a group setting. This will help provide your teen with the most beneficial. Support and treatment during their treatment program.

Teenage Depression – What to Look for When Seeking Help

When To Get Emergency Help

It is crucial to remember that some teens with depression are at an increased risk for self-harm and suicide. Encouraging your teen to talk about self-harming thoughts or behaviors could save their life. If you are concerned or become aware that your teen has suicidal thoughts or behaviors, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately.

Key Tips for Parents

It can be challenging to help your teen recognize and manage depression. As a parent, you may not know where to begin to help your teen feel better and overcome their symptoms. Remember that you cannot “cure” their depression.

The most effective way to heal from depression is comprehensive treatment and therapy at a professional depression treatment program. However, you can help your teen by ensuring you keep communication constant, open, and honest. Be patient and do not try to minimize their symptoms. Instead, understand that mental health conditions like depression are treatable. By being attentive to your teen’s behavior, you can help them take the first steps on their journey to healing.

Explore Your Options at Iris Healing®

Contact our admissions team today for more information if you would like to learn more about teen depression treatment programs and how our team at Iris Healing® can help.

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