“I didn’t answer him. All I did was, I got up and went over and looked out the window. I felt so lonesome all of a sudden, I almost wished I was dead.”
Holden Caufield, the protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s 1951 classic of teen angst, The Catcher in the Rye, was hardly the first depressed teen. Teen moodiness, anxiety and depression are so common as to be a cliché.
That said, anxiety and depression among people aged 12-20 is real and on the rise, with more than one in nine reporting that they had experienced a major depressive episode, according to a 2016 study.
I often hear from parents that they were slow to recognize their teenage children were depressed because the symptoms looked a lot like the ordinary torments of puberty. Indeed, the signs of depression read like Holden Caufield’s life story: feelings of sadness, hopelessness, irritability, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, feelings of worthlessness, social isolation, extreme sensitivity to rejection, and cloudy thinking.
Depressed teens may also experience changes in sleep patterns, experience low energy and a lack of initiative, lose their appetite, become restless, lose interest in school, neglect their appearance and complain about various ailments.
Most parents remember feeling some of those emotions themselves during their teen years. The brain isn’t fully developed, generally, until about the age of 26. It is not surprising that teenagers, whose bodies are maturing but whose brains are awash in hormones and whose social lives may be steeped in drama, may act irrationally.
But it is a mistake to dismiss all teen behavior as a phase.
Even teenagers who outwardly disdain their parents crave their love and expect them to set boundaries and provide guidance. And they want their parents to recognize their troubles and intervene, even if they say the opposite.
So it is incumbent upon parents to pay close attention to those symptoms and try to determine what might be a sign of trouble.
Certainly some symptoms present big red flags. Teens who use alcohol and drugs, who attempt to harm themselves physically or begin making a suicide plan are screaming for help. Parents must immediately seek help for their children to climb out of the abyss.
More generally, the long list of symptoms are “normal” in teenagers if they are occasional and moderate in severity. Protracted or severe bouts of sadness, hopelessness, etc. should be considered warning signs to seek help.
In the end, the best analgesic for teen depression is honest, respectful discussion with the people who love and care for them most – their parents. If you’re not sure whether your child is feeling anxiety and depression, talk to them. No teenager was ever prompted to commit suicide by their parents loving concern.